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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The new American (and international) family



  When I worked in a Chester County hospital in the late 1970s I was sitting with several surgeons in the break room when I heard muffled grunts of disapproval. The bone of contention seemed to be the front page stories in both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times.  The stories concerned a massive Gay Rights march down New York’s Sixth Avenue. Most in that small break room read the newspapers without comment, but one urologist shook his head contemptuously and said, “These protests are a fad, a phase!”

  I heard the words “phase” and told the urologist, “This is not a fad but the beginning of something really big.”  

  One of my favorite anesthesiologist’s happened to be standing in the doorway. She was a tall gangly woman from New Zealand with enormous owl-like glasses. Although well read and generally smart, she had one failing: she loved using the word ‘queer’ when referring to gay men. She proceeded to tell the assembly a story about a “queer” she had once known in New Zealand. “This queer,” she said, “dressed in white, drove a white car and lived in a white house.” 

 Was I missing something here? Then it hit me that she was making a vague reference to bodily fluids. How gross, I thought. She then reminded everyone that playwright Tennessee Williams also wore white. The break room had suddenly become surreal though I couldn’t bring myself to dislike her because I knew that she was just saying these things for group approval since most of the staff considered her an odd duck. She may in fact have been gay herself and just wanted to deflect attention away from her single status.  Homophobic men do this a lot.
   The idea of gay marriage in the 1970s was so remote you couldn’t even find references to it in published (gay) science fiction. In early gay liberation circles, men who had long term partners were regarded with suspicion if they said that they were monogamous. The 1970s politically correct way of thinking for activists was to equate romantic jealousy and monogamous long term relationships with wanting to “own” and possess a partner. Wanting to “own” someone body and soul was seen as one of the negative effects of growing up in a patriarchal, capitalist society. Many activists criticized heterosexual marriage as the spawn of capitalism with its idea of spousal “ownership.”  
    Homophobia was everywhere in those days. Even in countercultural Boston and Cambridge I used to hear bearded, socialist hippie revolutionaries spout the word ‘fag’ with abandon. They could talk about tearing down the capitol building, but they couldn’t free themselves from a prejudice inherited from their parents and grandparents.   
    When the idea of gay marriage first made small strides in the early 1980s, it was a fringe idea at best. Most self respecting gay people valued their personal sexual freedom and saw the insular married world of Ozzie and Harriet as a form of relationship slavery. For many the idea that you could only have sex with one person for the rest of your life seemed like a special kind of hell. But like the acceleration of a small faucet drip into a robust, gushing stream, the idea of gay marriage began to catch on.  The first reports of marriages came from gay-identified churches like the Metropolitan Community Church, or the gay friendly Unitarian Church and the United Church of Christ. In the Jewish world, you’d hear stories of a liberal rabbi uniting two men or two women in a home ceremony.  Reports of renegade Catholic or Anglican priests “marrying” two men or two women would surface a little later, but they were not common.  Generally, these union ceremonies were still regarded as freak occurrences in a community that still saw marriage as a straight institution. “We don’t want to be like straight people,” was a common refrain then.  

       In the early days, MCC couples who wished to tie the knot had a Holy Union ceremony. There were no legal ramifications to this ceremonial blessing. I attended one Holy Union service in the mid 1980s when a Navy lieutenant “married” his sailor boyfriend in the Joseph Priestly chapel at Center City’s First Unitarian Church. The reception was a snapshot of the traditional straight wedding: a sit down meal, champagne toasts, dancing, two men in tuxedos, a tall white wedding cake topped with two grooms plus an end show where the two grooms rubbed cake in each other’s faces. Attending this Navy wedding made me realize that the old activist line concerning marriage was fading, even though the MCC minister at that time was warning male couples who wanted a Holy Union that they first needed to take a serious look into making room “for the occasional other,” meaning, of course, an “on call” boyfriend once the marriage got stale. The assumed truth here was that all marriages, like seltzer water, go flat and that sexual passion eventually dims and fades.

    Now that the Supreme Court has put gay marriage on an equal footing with straight marriage, effectively relegating that those old PC “marriage is bad” activists to the dinosaur bin, the reactions have poured in.  Some people were indifferent to the ruling, claiming that it came too late, way after Canada and most of the western world. Many were jubilant. The ‘thumbs down’ reaction from Vladimir Putin and Russia was expected; ditto for places like Nigeria. Most gays expressed happiness at the Court’s decision despite the fact that many said they would never get married. As one friend of mind commented, “I won’t marry because I’ve made too many romantic mistakes in the past, but I’m glad it’s there as a civil right for others.”

    Of course, making a mistake in marriage can come close to becoming a fatal, if not expensive, error. Two men in their twenties and crazy in love are no different than a boy and a girl of the same age, also crazy in love, or lust, getting the two confused while on a deep chemistry level they are totally incompatible. In the old days the gay guys could split up by walking away from one another. ‘Divorce’ was as easy as slamming a door and going into the nearest gay bar for a fresh meet up, while the poor straight couple went through the prolonged, expensive agonies of legal divorce, complete with high voltage acrimony and vindictive, child visitation debates, alimony payments, not to mention dire end scenarios like, “She took my house, my car, everything,” etc. Yes, falling in love can be dangerous. It can also empty your bank account. 
       Some religious zealots responded to the Court’s decision by stating that gay marriages aren’t real anyway while others warned that now marriages will be legalized between humans and pit bulls, brother and sister, mothers and sons. Next up would be the legalization of pedophilia. On Facebook the volatile reactions to the Supreme Court ruling covered every conceivable opinion. The reaction among the haters was relentless and obsessive. One “I hardly know you” FB friend, an older woman, famous for her innocuous FB postings of drippy sweet Hallmark card verses, went Jekyll and Hyde and began dishing out the word sodomite. The transformation of this sweet Church Lady into an angry ‘Exorcist’ Linda Blair type was truly amazing.  Conversely, gay FB friends were also going ballistic, threatening to unfriend anyone who used the slightest homophobic slur. Extreme gay ideologues used the hate expressed against them by fanatical religious groups as a reason to hate back, calling for an end to Christianity or by saying that all Christians are evil.  

   Then, of course, there was the FB post of Father James Martin, from the Jesuit magazine, America, whose FB post reminding Catholics that no matter what their views on the subject, they should be mindful of what the Catholic catechism teaches when it comes to the subject of gay people. In other words, you can be against gay marriage and still be respectful. You don’t have to hate.

    “Catholics who disagree with the Supreme Court must treat gays with respect,” Fr. Martin said, “and with compassion and sensitivity, as the Catechism asks.” Unfortunately, many people did not listen to him, which then forced Fr. Martin to say, “Even after 25 years as a Jesuit, the level of hatred around homosexuality is nearly unbelievable to me.”

    The future looks bright, however, because as the “enlightened” realize, the collective trend is away from bigotry and darkness and into a much more generous, loving and accepting space.