As I type this, the children are sitting in time out. Andrew is doing a repeated sigh, I can only assume he’d like me to know that he does not enjoy time out. Jordan is sobbing, because it’s not fair to have a time out for choking Andrew when Andrew deserved to be choked.
We’ve entered the hazy, lazy days of summer vacation. The ice cold drinks in the sun are punctuated only by the joyful sounds of children. No, wait. That’s not joy, it’s the sound of two little boys choking each other.
In summer, one day blends slowly into the next. It’s hard to say when one day ends and the next begins, as we sit in the endless twilight, enjoying the company of beloved family.
No, it’s 3:17 in the afternoon, which means that we’ve been on summer vacation for three and a half hours. Three hours and twenty minutes, if you only count from the time the children got off the school bus.
Here’s what I’ve done on my summer vacation:
I put on my hat and walk to the end of the driveway, waiting for Jordan’s bus. It’s beautiful out. I scroll through twitter on my phone while I sit on the retaining wall at the edge of the driveway.
Jordan arrives home. His bus driver, who adores him, wishes him a wonderful summer.
Jordan is on the floor, sobbing. He wanted to drive to New Jersey to visit my in-laws. Today. Because it’s summer vacation now, isn’t it? Our trip to visit them at the end of May was too long ago, and “also it was boring because it was too short and short trips don’t count as trips and I don’t love Bubbe and Zayde anymore anyway and I do not want to see them. EVER. AGAIN.”
Jordan has calmed down, and would like a snack. I explain that we’ll be having lunch in about five minutes, as soon as Andrew’s bus drops him off. Jordan sobs again.
Jordan curls up on the couch with his stuffed cat. I go to meet Andrew’s bus.
Andrew’s bus arrives.
Andrew hates lunch, but he’s glad we’re eating outside on the new patio. Jordan spilled his milk, and he “hates lunch even though I ate it all and if you make the same thing again I will not eat it and I will not eat lunch outside again. NOT. EVER. AGAIN.”
All of the boys’ toys are boring, and the only way they will have any fun this summer is if I take them out to buy new toys or let them play on the Wii U.
Andrew tickles Jordan. Jordan chokes Andrew.
Andrew takes the Lego pieces Jordan was playing with. Jordan slaps Andrew.
Andrew would like to do some homework. So he does.
One hour of Mario. No one hits, no one bites, no one screams, no one scratches.
The hour is over. Jordan is on the floor, sobbing.
We’re in time out again, because we can’t stop fighting.
I’m pretty good at breaking an egg with one hand.
I realize that this falls pretty far short of being a super power, but it makes me feel competent in the kitchen. I don’t have any other particularly identifiable cooking skills. I do fine, but I make a mess, and I take longer than people who are actually good at cooking. But breaking an egg? I do great.
Whack side of sink. Crack over bowl. Shell in the garbage disposal.
This morning, I made myself some scrambled eggs. But instead of my usual skill, I goofed it up. Instead of popping open the first egg over the bowl, I opened it right down the garbage disposal. Not because I hit it too hard on the side of the sink and it leaked out. No, I just dumped it right down the drain.
I made a mistake, obviously. My first thought wasn’t, “Oops,” though. I went immediately to degenerative brain disease. It’s been ten years since my aunt died, and I remember the dismissal of her earliest symptoms. She complained that she’d find herself standing in a room with no idea why she had gone there, and my family said, “Yes, that’s called getting old.”
It’s not that the answer was a bad one. I’ve put the milk away in the cabinet instead of the refrigerator. I’ve put a tea kettle on the stove and come back an hour later to find a broken, dry tea kettle smoldering. These are signs of distraction, not a degenerative brain disease. Except that sometimes they are the signs of a degenerative brain disease.
My maternal grandmother is in hospice care. She lives in a nursing home, and has had a steady decline since my grandfather died four years ago. She’s moved from sometimes confused to often confused, from often confused to usually confused. Now we only get a rare glimpse of the person we know and love.
The staff at the nursing home have been wonderful, but they’ll never know my grandmother. My mother and I laugh whenever someone at the nursing home describes my grandmother as “sweet,” or “cute.”
“There are lots of words I’d use to describe Nana,” says my mother, “but ‘sweet’ and ‘cute’ will never be on that list.”
My Nana was an English teacher. She retired on June 19, 1978. I know the date because I happened to be born on the last day of school that year. She is whip smart, and possessed of a biting sense of humor. I like to think that she invented the side eye.
She could do flawless impressions of people. Not extended performances, but if she was telling you a story about something someone said, their words came out of her mouth in their voice, not her own.
In the mid 80s, when my brother was probably 4 or 5, she baked us a batch of chocolate chip cookies. My brother told Nana that her cookies were good, but “not as good as Almost Home,” a brand of packaged cookies my mother would often buy. I don’t think Nana ever quite forgave my brother for that slight.
Nana mostly sleeps these days, and if she happens to be awake, her speech is infrequent and incoherent. On Friday, when my mother visited, Nana was annoyed. She snapped my mother, snapped at my father, snapped at the social worker from hospice. When they went for a walk, the social director of the nursing home put her hand on my grandmother’s arm and said good morning.
My grandmother grabbed the woman’s hand and dug her nails in. My mother had to pry her fingers off.
The woman shrugged it off and said, “Oh, Agnes, you’re surprisingly strong.”
My mother laughed as she told me, “Now that’s the mother I remember.”
“Boys,” I yell, “what’s going on up there? You sound like a herd of elephants.”
“It’s not my fault, Daddy!” calls Jordan. “Andrew made me do it.”
“I did NOT,” says Andrew, indignant. “You wanted to do it.”
“Do what?” I ask.
Jordan has come down to the kitchen by now, and he says, “Andrew was timing me, to see how fast I could go up and down the stairs.”
Now Andrew comes into the room, holding up one of those little sand timers you find in a board game. “I was just timing him, he was the one running on the stairs,” he says. Then he adds, “But I don’t know how long it took him, because this timer doesn’t really even tell you.”
“The rule is that we don’t run inside the house, guys,” I say. “Especially not on the stairs.”
We live in an old house, and the stairs are awful. Really awful. They’re steep. Steep enough that adults often put a hand out in front of themselves when ascending. They go around corners. Even just carrying a laundry basket up the stairs requires you to lift the basket practically above your head in order to fit. These are advanced stairs for advanced stair users. When I use the stairs in other homes, I get a little jealous.
“Oh, your stairs are so comfortable to use!” is a thing that I have actually said, out loud, to other people.
So I’m a little annoyed that Andrew would convince his little brother to run up and down our stairs. Jordan works with a physical therapist and an occupational therapist every week, and stairs have always been a challenge for him. Especially our awful stairs.
Secretly, though? I’m proud of Jordan for running up and down those stairs. That’s a big deal. He may not run like the other kids, but he’s getting closer and closer. And he’s worked really hard to get there.
Andrew has worked really hard, too. When he was four, no one could understand what he was saying. He had lived with us for months before I was able to understand his speech with any regularity. He used to have to repeat himself so many times to be understood. We used to work on using different words to say the same thing, on the theory that if you said, “Can we go to the park?” and “I’d like to visit the playground,” you were increasing the odds that someone would be able to puzzle out what you were saying. And that’s a tough skill for a four-year-old; they have a hard enough time coming up with just one way to turn their thoughts into coherent sentences.
I remember the week that Andrew’s speech therapist told him a story to teach him how to make the K sound and the G sound. She told a story about a little boy whose necktie was on too tight, nearly choking him, and all that came out was a coughing “K-k-k-k-k-k-k!” sound. Then, once he took the necktie off, he gulped down a giant glass of water, swallowing so much so quickly that it went, “Guh-guh-guh-guh-guh-guh!” down his throat.
Andrew came home from that appointment and worked on nothing but G and K for the next 48 hours. Finally, he managed to choke out the word cat. He was shocked. I was shocked. His therapist was shocked when he showed up for his appointment the next week and said, “Hi … Katherine!”
I ran into Katherine last week, and it made me realize just how long ago Andrew’s struggle to be understood seems. Everyone understands him now. No one who meets Andrew today has any idea that he was ever hard to understand. Just a couple of weeks ago, his teacher was talking about his “remarkable vocabulary,” just casually mentioning that he really knows an awful lot of words for a second grader.
Next week, it will be the fourth anniversary of The Day The Boys Moved In. It’s an interesting combination of “I can’t believe it’s been four years,” and “Really? It’s only been four years?”
I guess it’s time to get going on the next four years. I’ll get out a big sand timer.
There’s this video making the rounds on facebook and twitter. It’s a gay couple’s wedding video, and it’s being shared because people are moved by the speech that one of the men’s fathers gives to his son and his new son-in-law. It’s actually pretty standard wedding fare, as far as I can see, but we don’t hear that often enough in the context of gay people getting married. I’m sure the fact that the dad is in the military is also part of its appeal — I guess people don’t expect a man in uniform to give a loving speech at his gay son’s wedding.
It’s not the speech that I’d like to talk about today, but a moment that comes just before that speech. You can watch the video below. The bit I’ll be discussing begins around the 4:45 mark, if you’d like to skip ahead.
Before I talk about the moment that made me uncomfortable, I feel like I should offer a disclaimer. This is a wedding video, and it’s very obvious the dad loves his son a great deal. I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing this family. I’m just using this video as an example because it has a moment that I can point out. The problem is pretty universal.
I was scared to tell my dad that I was gay. I was scared to come out to my dad. I was just so down, and he was like, “What’s wrong with you?” … And he looked at me and he said, “What did I do to fail you? What did I do to fail in raising you to trust me?” and I said, “Dad, what are you talking about?” and he says, “Why can’t you tell me that you’re gay?”
So let’s talk about the ways that straight parents fail their LGBT kids. Let’s talk about why a kid might be afraid to tell their parents that they’re gay. This applies to parents of kids anywhere on the sexual orientation or gender spectrum, for a couple of reasons. First, you may or may not know if your kid is LGBT, so you need to apply this advice regardless. Second, even if your kid is straight, if you want things to get better for LGBT kids in general, you need to create an environment where all kids learn that LGBT people are just as good as anyone else, and just as deserving of love, family, friends, community, and respect.
For the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to assume you’re a parent who would want your kid to feel safe enough to come out to you, and that you would want to know if you were falling short of that goal.
First, take a look at yourself.
Are LGBT people ever a topic of conversation in your home? When an LGBT rights issue is in the news, is it likely to be discussed? Think about the last time you said anything about LGBT people. What would the takeaway have been for your kid? Do you ever make jokes about LGBT people, even ironically? Do you feel comfortable discussing LGBT people, or does your voice get a little quieter, like when people are afraid to say “cancer?” A lot of LGBT kids are gender nonconforming. If your son asks for a doll, do you get a pained look on your face, even just for a moment? Did you dress him up in one of those awful “Ladies’ Man” t-shirts, sending the message that you’ve already decided what his sexual orientation is? Do you tell your daughter that there are certain events to which she simply has to wear a dress? Do you talk about your child’s future in a way that makes it sound like you’ve got a specific vision for what that future looks like? If you do, you’re setting the stage for your kid to feel like they will be disappointing you if they aren’t able to provide exactly that picture. If you treat being straight or conforming to gender roles as the default, you’re contributing to an environment where an LGBT child won’t be sure if they can trust you.
If you want your kid to feel safe telling you that they’re LGBT, show your kid that it is safe to tell you. Show them that you don’t have negative opinions of LGBT people. Don’t sit your kid down for an awkward chat and say, “It’s fine with me if you’re gay.” Show them. Show them by the way you live your life. If I asked your kid to tell me what you think about LGBT people, what would they say? If they wouldn’t be sure of their answer, you can be sure that they will not feel safe.
Next, take a look at your family.
No one’s family is perfect, and you can’t control what your family says and does. You can, however, control your response. If your kid hears negative messages about LGBT people at family gatherings, you need to be certain that your kid hears that you disagree with those messages, that you consider those messages to be unacceptable regardless of who is saying them, and that those messages are never again to be repeated in front of you or your kid. If you have a family member who cannot or will not agree to that request, you need to think very carefully about what message you are sending to your kid. Allowing your kid to be subjected to negative remarks about LGBT people — even if you are not the one making those remarks — will tell your kid that you are willing to compromise on issues as fundamental as who your kid is.
What about your friends?
When your kid looks at the people with whom you choose to spend your time, what do they see? Are there any LGBT people among your friends or family? If your kid is LGBT, and when they look around, they don’t see any other LGBT people, how lonely do you think they will feel? If they were to consider coming out, would they be the only LGBT person around? Kids look to adults for models of what adulthood is and what they can be. Without living, breathing LGBT people, your kid is left only with the extremely limited LGBT representation we see in the media. When you went to high school, was it a lot like the high school in Glee? For an LGBT kid, Glee might be the primary example they see of LGBT people. I can promise you that the LGBT characters on Glee are as divorced from the reality of LGBT people as the rest of the characters are divorced from the reality of everyday people.
I’m not saying that you should go out and try to find a new Gay Best Friend. Actually, please do not go out and try to find a new Gay Best Friend. But if you look at your social circle and it seems somehow limited, you need to consider that your social circle might, in fact, be limited. And you may need to ask yourself some difficult questions about why that is the case.
Everything that I said about families applies to your friends, perhaps even more so. You may not be able to choose your family, but you’ve chosen your friends, so their attitudes about LGBT people will tell your kid a great deal.
A limited view of LGBT people — making assumptions about who is or isn’t LGBT based on behavior or appearance, spending time speculating about who is or isn’t LGBT — will tell an LGBT kid that your view of them, your view of their life and their future, is limited.
Take a look at your community.
Do you bring your kid to a church? What does your church say about LGBT people? Are there LGBT people in your church community? If so, are the LGBT people in your church community full participants in all the same rituals and ceremonies as everyone else? Are LGBT members of your church community able to be married in your church? If you expect your kid to participate in a church community that doesn’t seem them as an equal to everyone else, you are telling your kid that you don’t view them as a equal to everyone else. A kid who knows that their parents don’t think LGBT people are worthy of equal treatment is going to be afraid of what will happen if they come out as LGBT.
What is the climate for LGBT kids in your school district? I can promise you that your LGBT middle school or high school student hears the word “gay” used as an insult, probably every day. It may not be directed at your kid, but it is part of their environment. What kind of protections are in place for LGBT students, who are more likely to be on the receiving end of bullying than their peers? Is there a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar organization at your local high school and middle school? You can work to improve the climate for LGBT kids in your school district before your kid is even there. Change takes time, so if you wait until your kid needs the resources of a Gay-Straight Alliance or a non-discrimination policy, you may be too late to provide them. If it takes a year to get the Gay-Straight Alliance up and running, that’s a year that your LGBT kid went without. If you want your kid’s school environment to be a safe one, you may need to make it a safe environment.
You can keep extending this examination outward, in ever larger circles. What is the climate for LGBT people in your town? In your state? What are the priorities of LGBT activists and organizations in your area? In what ways can you help those priorities become reality? Every hard-won victory will slowly improve conditions for LGBT kids.
But you have to start at home. Even if you can’t get your extended family to stop saying negative things about LGBT people, you can make sure your kid knows that you disagree. Even if bigots on the school committee block adoption of a non-discrimination policy, you can show your kid that you were fighting on the right side of a moral issue.
Finally, we need to acknowledge that even if you do all of these things, your LGBT kid still might not feel safe coming out to you. And it may not have anything to do with you. Coming out is a deeply personal decision, and it will happen in the context of your kid’s whole environment — family, friends, peers, community, media, and politics all play a role — and you are just one part of that puzzle. When your LGBT kid does decide to come out, don’t make it about you. It’s not.
I don’t spend very much time thinking about celebrities, really. I don’t read People or US Weekly. Even in a waiting room, I’m more likely to pick up a news magazine or, heck, even Better Homes and Gardens, although I need to be clear, neither my home nor my garden is what anyone would describe as “better.” So the only time I look at People is when my alternatives are Sports Illustrated and Field and Stream. Though really, in the years since I got a smartphone, I’m more likely to be looking at that than at a magazine.
Usually the only times I read about celebrities are when they have committed a crime and ended up in the regular news, or they have said something about gay people. When the latter is the case, the rainbow unicorn flashes in the sky like the bat signal, and I need to know what they’re saying. “Gay people on television!” still makes me run for the TiVo remote.
My brushes with fame are few and far between. When I was in college, Audra McDonald and I knocked each other over on the stairs at a studio in New York. She was hurrying down, I was hurrying up, and bam! We both said “excuse me” and she was polite enough to act like it was just as much her fault as it was mine, which is really unlikely, but it was very nice of her to pretend. And now your life has been enriched by that thrilling tale of fame.
It’s worth noting, though, that in all of my blog posts, the one where I yelled at Rupert Everett is the one that has received far and away the most views.
I’ve never really compared my life to depictions of celebrities and found myself wanting, though. I mean, sure, fancy events with interesting people look great, but I’d be just as awkward at an opening night gala as I am at the damned grocery store. Even more so, because I am truly, truly awkward and out of my element at large parties. Heck, last week I introduced myself to one of the dads at Jordan’s summer school because I’d had a nice conversation with his wife (and because I’ve seen him every morning for two years and we still haven’t said hello) and I managed to stumble over good morning pretty spectacularly. And that was just a party of two! You should see what I can do when there are dozens of strangers!
And then along came Neil Patrick Harris.
Before Neil Patrick Harris came out, got a gorgeous and talented partner, and had kids, there weren’t any really widely known models of gay dadhood for people to assume that I would be like. Sure, there are plenty of other gay dads out there, but very few of them are household names, and most of those household names have only become fathers in the last five years or so.
The list of really famous gay dads is still pretty short. It’s basically Ricky Martin, Elton John, and Neil Patrick Harris. Right off the bat, we can eliminate Ricky Martin. Not a single person on this earth has ever, for even a fleeting moment, wondered if my life might be anything like Ricky Martin’s. And I don’t think anyone has ever wondered if there is anyone out there who has a life like Elton John’s. Too ridiculous to contemplate.
But if the only three gay dads you’ve ever heard of are Ricky Martin, Elton John, and Neil Patrick Harris, you might start to wonder if maybe Neil Patrick Harris is kind of, sort of like me.
In the broadest strokes, Neil Patrick Harris and I might seem like vaguely similar sorts of people. We’re about the same age. (He’s five years older than I am, but I look five years older than he does, so I guess that’s a wash!) He’s an actor. I … have acted, and I studied theatre in college, and worked in theatre before I decided to stay at home with the boys. (Spoiler alert: Managing a theatrical box office is not in any way similar to acting.) We have similar body types, I guess, though his would best be described as well-cared for, and mine, well … not. We both have kind of corny, punny senses of humor. (The difference is that when Neil Patrick Harris makes a joke, people laugh, and when I make a joke, people smile, nod, and take a few steps back. The summer I worked at the GAP, my boss told me that customers might find my sense of humor off-putting. That was a big confidence booster!) The primary similarities, though, are that we’re both gay men and we both have two kids.
I have taken my children to playdates, only to witness the palpable, growing disappointment of the other parents when they realize that we are not, in fact, the Harris-Burtka family. (How sweetly their names hyphenate. Now try hyphenating Vigorito-Horowitz with a straight face. Can’t. Be. Done.) They start out excited. Maybe they’ll have new, exciting gay best friends! Then they find out how boring we are and how poorly my children behave. Oh, you thought maybe I’d show you a new place to go antiquing and put on a puppet show while the kids snack on these amazing kale popsicles I made? Sorry, we’re going to sit here and smile awkwardly at each other while my son tantrums because most playdates just have too many transitions for him to handle. Bonus! You can judge my parenting because hugging your kids when they’re upset helps them feel better, and hugging mine when he’s upset just turns a disaster into a catastrophe.
Neil Patrick Harris makes parenting sound amazing, all the time. Just look at this interview he did, where he makes kids spitting up on the carpet sound … cute and refreshing! “They’ll do something that blows your mind and then they’ll spit all their food out on the carpet.” Maybe I’m just doing it wrong, but I have a hard time imagining that he’s ever knelt, crying and trying not to retch, cleaning poopy footprints and handprints out of the carpet when one of his children decided that what was inside their diaper really belonged on the floor. No one who has had to do that ever truly looks happy again. Not that happy.
Also, if we’re being honest, I’m maybe a little jealous. My husband is (not very) secretly in love with Neil Patrick Harris. It started out innocently enough, but then Neil Patrick Harris helped make his dreams come true.
About seven years ago, Austin and one of his friends decided to go watch a taping of The Price Is Right while Bob Barker was still hosting.
“Do you want to come?” he asked.
“Sure, why not?” I said.
“Great, it’ll mean sleeping on the sidewalk outside the studio so we’re at the front of the line! Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
No. No, in fact, sleeping on a sidewalk in LA sounds much closer to my vision of Hell on Earth than it does like fun. So I waved and smiled, and stayed home to take care of the dog. I didn’t know I was sending my husband off into the arms of another man. Neil Patrick Harris, of course. (In case you decided to start reading at this paragraph.)
So Austin and his friend sleep on the sidewalk, and they get to watch a taping of The Price Is Right. Neither of them is picked as a contestant, but they have a great time. And then something ridiculous happens.
An episode of How I Met Your Mother is taping a segment on the set of The Price Is Right. So in addition to being in the audience for a real episode of The Price Is Right, they’re in the fictional audience for Barney Stinson’s appearance on The Price Is Right. And they’re sitting right behind Neil Patrick Harris. They pat him on the shoulders and cheer when he’s chosen as a contestant. (Season Two, Episode Twenty. Whatever.)
He comes home, and there’s a twinkle in his eye when he tells me, “Neil Patrick Harris is even more beautiful in person than he is on tv.”
So if someday Neil Patrick Harris is seeking a new husband, Austin won’t hesitate. And really, who could blame him? I mean, if we’re running the numbers on this, Neil Patrick Harris is the clearly superior choice in literally every way. I don’t think I could even be mad about it.
I liked it better before Neil Patrick Harris was showing us all up all the time.
Please be aware that this post contains discussion of bullying, violence and suicide.
It’s easy to recognize our own pain. We live it. We feel it. We own it. We know it.
I think it’s perhaps easiest to recognize someone else’s pain when we see a reflection of our own pain. I’m sure that’s why reports of gay teens committing suicide resonate so powerfully for so many gay and lesbian adults, myself included. When I read about a gay teenager taking his own life, my heart races. I can feel my pulse in my ears. My hands and feet start to tingle. It’s the fight-or-flight response, two decades later, because my body still remembers the threat to my survival. Just reading about another kid in that situation, my body prepares. It is telling me to survive, and it takes every step it can to help me survive a physical threat.
Writing the previous paragraph was more challenging than I would have anticipated. It’s the middle of a heat wave, but my hands are ice cold. They are an unnatural color, like a corpse on a crime drama. My nail beds, usually pink, are purple. I took breaks. I took in deep breaths through my nose and let them out slowly from my mouth. I went up and down the stairs for no reason. I got an iced tea . I finished it. I pestered my husband, interrupting the episode of Deadliest Catch he is watching. I stuck my fingers down the back of his neck, declaring, “Free air conditioning!” I got the look. You know, that one. I replaced the iced tea with a real drink.
But it was my choice. I knew what writing about this was going to do. This, by the way, is one reason trigger warnings exist. These physical responses aren’t fun, so it’s a kindness to warn others when we can. I’m the kind of person who blissfully ignores those warnings and is then surprised to find myself saying, “Oh, I really shouldn’t have read that!” But, again, that’s my choice.
I’ve experienced this feeling, to varying degrees, a few times in the last week or so. Once, when I read about the suicide of Carlos Vigil, a 17-year-old boy in New Mexico. Again while writing this post. In between those two, where I anticipated the feeling, I was surprised to find myself reacting the same way to an episode of The Fosters on ABC Family. The youngest member of the family, described by ABC as “a sensitive boy,” was excited to be making a new friend at school. It was a sweet scene, but for me the stakes were too high. I know too well what happens when sensitive pre-teen boys get excited about making new friends. We make fools of ourselves, and end up even lonelier than we started. I can only hope that it’s gotten better in the twenty-three years since I was a pre-teen boy.
What I really want to talk about, though, is what happens when the connection to someone else’s pain isn’t quite so visceral. What happens when we decide that their pain isn’t quite the same as our pain?
At the most extreme end, we get atrocities like the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. The jurors were somehow unable to connect Trayvon Martin’s murder to their own experiences, or their own fears about what might happen to their children. Instead, they connected with their fears of black teenage boys. Some of the jurors were parents, and I’m sure that at some point they’ve lost sleep worrying about their own children. And yet, in this case, they found themselves identifying more with a man who stalked a child, provoked a confrontation with that child, and then shot that child dead in the street while the child screamed and begged for his life.
If only Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal were unique.
There’s a mountain of evidence that our criminal justice system fails black people. Perhaps the clearest data is the conviction disparity between blacks and whites. It’s difficult to discuss productively, though, for a few main reasons. The first is simple racial animus — maybe black people are just more likely to commit crimes? Next, you have to compete with the basic belief that our courts are fair. This seems quite obviously incorrect — in the last thirty days, our courts have decided to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and give George Zimmerman free reign to walk the streets of Florida murdering black children. But for white people, the courts are pretty fair. It’s hard to get people to see that their own experience does not necessarily extrapolate. (Just look at how many people roll their eyes and say, “Pfft, global warming,” when they’re shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway.) Finally, we have a tendency to venerate juries, making their conclusions somehow sacrosanct, as if jurors are magically able to leave behind their prejudices when they enter the deliberation room.
“But I don’t do that!” is a common reaction from white people when there’s talk about racism. Maybe that’s true. I suspect that if you took the Harvard Implicit Associations Test for race, you would be surprised by the result. You’d be correct, though, that overt expressions of racial animus are less socially acceptable today than they used to be. (Well, sometimes. The Washington Post still lets Richard Cohen write columns.)
Most people, though, do believe in basic fairness, so they are able to identify the most overt displays of discrimination and describe them as unfair. The problem is that employers rarely say, “Jim, I’m firing you because you are black.” Juries don’t come back from deliberation and say, “We find the defendant guilty, Your Honor, because he is black.” We’re all supposed to take great pride in that, declare that we live in a post-racial society, and ignore displays of racism that are any more covert because people might disagree.
When I was adopting, there were hundreds of questions about potential children. What ages would we accept? What gender? What race? How many? There was a multiple page list of disabilities, and we were asked to rank our comfort level with each of them — Can Definitely Accept, Can Definitely Not Accept, Need Specific Information. We zipped through the beginning: infant through age six, any gender, any race, either one child or a sibling pair. We spent a lot more time evaluating the range and severity of disabilities, as strange as that seemed, since you can never really know. Health and disability can change in the blink of an eye. Regardless, we filled out the form as best we could.
And then we had dinner with my parents.
We were casually discussing the paperwork, and talking about how strange it was to fill it out. My mother’s response was coded, barely, but her view was clear: she hoped we would have a white child.
My heart started to race. My fingers went numb. I could hear my pulse in my ears.
I’ve heard racist stories and jokes, infrequently, over the years at family parties. Never from my parents. From my grandfather and my uncles. My dad would sit in silence, and my mother’s face made her disapproval clear. But they never said anything. No one ever said, “Stop telling that disgusting story. We’re leaving.”
Driving home from dinner at my parents’ house, I replayed every discussion of race I’d ever had with my mother. It was easy, because there were so few. I recalled the times she had dismissed her own mother’s racism as “a product of another age,” saying that my grandmother “didn’t really mean it.” I always had a mouth on me, and I remember saying, “Really? Because Nana usually means what she says.”
I started looking at my own childhood, and the shame I felt when I didn’t conform to my mother’s ideas about what a little boy should be. She may have hand-knit a poncho for my Barbie doll, but a few years later I would feel the sting of rejection when I said or did things that embarrassed her.
Would my family love my children less if they were not white? Was I prepared to find out? I sought advice from our social worker. Her recommendation was clear, and we changed the form from “any race” to “white.” What did it say that we felt prepared for a whole range of developmental challenges, but we weren’t sure if we were appropriately prepared to raise a black child? Autism was fine, but a black child wasn’t?
Hearing Melissa Harris-Perry’s voice break while she described her relief at learning she was having a girl made me remember that decision. I had put it in the back of my mind in the panic and rush of actually being matched with children, and the dawn to exhaustion marathon that has followed. I don’t know if the decision changed anything. We were matched with our sons so quickly after we were approved, primarily because we said we would take two children and because the social workers were ecstatic that I was going to be home with the kids.
Is this a story about my racism? I don’t know. But it’s something I haven’t really talked about, which is a pretty good sign that it’s a problem. I talk about everything. When I read Kelly Wickham’s piece calling out those who have remained silent, I decided to write about it.
I don’t know if this story is helpful, but I know that there’s a problem, and that too many people are silent about it.
In eighth grade, I went to my friend Jason’s birthday party. We walked from Jason’s house to the arcade, and then after the arcade, his mother let us rent any movies we wanted. The group of 13 year old boys picked Terminator 2 and Child’s Play 2. You may remember the Child’s Play movies as the ones about the Cabbage Patch Kid-like doll that comes to life and gruesomely murders people.
We watched Terminator 2 first, which was a pretty neat movie. My parents still very carefully monitored which PG movies I was allowed to watch at thirteen, so watching an R-rated movie with my friends was very much a transgression on my part. I felt cool.
And then we watched Child’s Play 2. And really, I wanted to die.
I barely slept for weeks. Every night, for weeks, I would wait until my parents went to bed, and I then I would turn my bedroom lights back on and read books. The idea of turning the lights off and closing my eyes horrified me. I knew that if I did, Chuckie would come out of my closet and kill me.
So instead, I read L. Frank Baum until I passed out.
My childhood bedroom had a walk-in closet. Inside that closet was a stairway to the attic. At the top of the stairs, all that stood between me a certain doom was a flimsy plywood door. Every night, I propped a rocking chair under the doorknob on my closet. I didn’t think it would keep the door from opening, so I stacked some metal things on the chair — an old colander, a saucepan — hoping that when, not if, the door opened, I would at least be warned by the clatter.
I managed to convince my parents that it was time to redecorate my bedroom. It was a kid’s bedroom, and I was a young man in need of a young man’s bedroom. (A young man literally trying to escape the monsters in his closet.) Oh, and hey, if we’re redoing the room anyway, wouldn’t this be a great time for me to trade with the guest bedroom?
So after about a month, I changed bedrooms and started being able to sleep again.
Things were fine.
And then my dad decided to start collecting Byer’s Choice Caroler dolls to display at Christmas. Our home was filled with these … creatures of nightmare. I’d walk from the kitchen into the family room, and they’d be looking at me. The living room. More of them, looking at me. Try to eat in the dining room while those monsters are watching you. They were clearly waiting for me to plump up before feasting on my remains!
But I was thirteen! What was I going to do? Tell my parents that their Christmas decorations were literally making me jump every time I turned a corner? No, I pretended I was fine, just like I did in every other aspect of my completely not fine life.
For years, I wouldn’t watch scary movies. Then, when I was in college, I started forcing myself to watch them. I was going to make it be fine. And really, it was. I didn’t have nightmares anymore, and I no longer looked over my shoulder every twenty seconds to see if a serial killer or gruesome doll from nightmare was targeting me.
I can even walk through my parents’ house at Christmas without jumping. I am pretty sure that I can take a Byer’s Choice Caroler in a fight. Maybe.
Last night, though, I had a nightmare. Like, a wake up, shaking and sweaty, full on nightmare. And it was about Jordan. I had never even considered the possibility that I would start having dreams that gruesome nightmare dolls were targeting my children.
But there it was.
In the dream, we were at a friend’s house, watching a movie. My kids and her kids, totally pleasant. Jordan was sitting on the floor.
Then, out of nowhere, a man in a COOKIE MONSTER COSTUME sneaks up behind Jordan and kicks him in the head. No one else seemed to care, so I had to pursue the Cookie Monster criminal by myself, through the woods.
Thanks, brain. I owe you one.
Dear Andrew and Jordan,
You are on summer vacation! That sounds like fun. We’ve got a lot of fun things planned for this summer, and I think you’ll really enjoy them. There’s also lots of opportunities for unplanned fun — things like running out for soft serve or staying up past your bedtime. All you have to do is play your cards right.
Auntie Jessie taught me something important about parenting pretty soon after I became a parent, and it’s a lesson I try to remember. It was a pretty simple rule:
“Never hand out a punishment or consequence that’s a bigger pain for you than it is for the children.”
Words to live by.
What she means is this: if you’re running around the house all day screaming and fighting, it’s very tempting to say, “That’s it! No TV this afternoon!” But that’s a terrible idea, because it’s more of a punishment for me than it is for you. You’ll continue to run around the house screaming, and I will lose that hour of relative quiet when I can take a breath and actually make some headway into preparing a meal. You watching TV for an hour is my reward, not yours.
This brings us to a topic I have not mentioned to you. There is a drive-in movie theatre a very short drive from our house. That movie theatre is showing Monsters University this weekend. Do I need to say anything else? Let’s be clear: I would like to take you to see Monsters University at an actual, honest-to-god, drive-in movie theatre.
Your daddy has never been to a drive-in. Not once. When I was a kid, by the time my parents decided I was grown up enough to stay up and go to a drive-in, they had all closed down. Except for the one near us, where I’d like to take you. But that one only showed porn when I was a kid. Never mind.
Anyway, you might think that going to a drive-in would fall squarely within Auntie Jessie’s rule. I shouldn’t cancel a trip to something I’d like to do because you aren’t behaving. But Auntie Jessie’s rule doesn’t cover everything.
So here’s Daddy’s Rule:
“If you want me to take you a drive-in movie, you need to create a day — just one day! — where the idea of letting you stay up three hours past your bedtime does not make me want to jab an ice pick into my ear.”
Let’s work on that, shall we?
Yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8 are a big win, but we need to be careful not to trick ourselves into thinking that the war being waged against LGBT families is over. June 26th will be remembered as a turning point as long as we remember that no one has equality until we all have equality.
If you had asked me a month ago, I probably would have told you that I expected to be dancing in the streets when the Supreme Court handed down decisions in the marriage cases. I was confident that DOMA would be struck down and that marriages would begin again in California. And I’m extremely happy about those rulings, but I find it more difficult to generate that level of dancing in the street excitement.
I stayed up into the early hours of the morning on Election Day in 2008. I was absolutely convinced that Proposition 8 would be defeated in California. It would be a turning point! It would be the first time that voters defeated a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and I knew — absolutely knew — that California could do it. Would do it. I drank lots of tea, watched returns on tv, cried when Obama won, and waited.
Eventually, of course, it became clear that I was wrong. Prop 8 passed. I was stunned. I didn’t know how to react. Logically, I didn’t think I should feel so … defeated. I mean, I didn’t even live in California anymore. I lived in Massachusetts. I was already married. I can’t have been alone in that feeling, because I’m pretty sure that many of our marriage victories in the last few years are a direct result of the shock LGBT felt after losing on Prop 8.
Where are we left, though, after this week?
Well, some Americans are less equal than they were when the week began. By gutting the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court has diminished our democracy. Within hours of the decision, Texas began to implement an extremely restrictive voter id requirement. It’s going to mean that fewer citizens, fewer legitimate voters, will be able to vote. The most fundamental right we have in a democracy, and it is being stripped away.
In the marriage cases, the answer is less clear. Some of us, those who live in states where we were already somewhat more equal, have become … even closer to equal. My family now enjoys the same legal protections as every other family, as long as we remain in a marriage equality state.
Immediately, or pretty close to immediately, we should begin to receive some pretty sizeable tax refunds from the federal government. We filed protective claims on our taxes back to 2008, the year we got married. That means that we should be able to receive refunds for the extra taxes we’ve paid in the last four years. Without getting too specific about our finances, that’s about $10,000 in total, mostly because I’m a stay-at-home dad and don’t have income, while my husband does.
For the future, it’s hard to say what the economic benefit is for us. It depends on when I return to the workforce and what kind of money I’m able to make when I do. It’s unlikely that it would have continued to cost us $2500 annually, because the number was going down each year. What this means in terms of social security is unclear, too, and will also depend on what the next thirty years holds for me in terms of a career. What is clear, though, is that the same rules will apply to us that apply to our neighbors. No more special rules just for us.
It looks like yesterday’s ruling may be most important for binational couples, since they were the ones at risk of not even being able to live with their spouses. For couples in equality states, and those with ready access to travel to an equality state to get a marriage license, it seems like this will be a real remedy. We need to make sure that the LGBT community creates a system to assist economically disadvantaged couples in non-equality states to access this remedy. The gap between deportation and a life together might be as small as two airline tickets and a marriage license fee.
We cannot allow ourselves to forget, for even a moment, issues like employment discrimination, economic justice, housing discrimination, violence, access to the full range of physical and mental health services. LGBT people are impacted disproportionately by disparities in those areas, and yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions do not provide a direct remedy for any of those painful, damaging injustices.
Some of you are rolling your eyes at me right now. It’s because I said “direct” remedy, implying that there is an indirect remedy of some kind to be found in yesterday’s ruling. I think there is, and it gives me enormous hope. I think (and Antonin Scalia agrees with me, so … yay?) that yesterday’s decision on equal protection grounds opens doors for an awful lot of equal protection claims to be made not only in marriage, but also in employment, in housing, and in health care.
Plenty of people do not believe in marriage. I think an admirable case for marriage as oppression can be made. (To summarize, but please go read it anyway: the fight for marriage equality draws money and attention away from other LGBT issues, and that marriage is primarily an economic tool that perpetuates capitalism, thereby disadvantaging those we claim it is helping.) It’s not that I disagree with those arguments. I don’t. I just think it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll see enormous structural changes made to any of those institutions in our lifetimes, and I think that seeking more justice within those systems is more likely to meet success.
But there’s another reason, too. I live in Massachusetts. I grew up in Massachusetts, just down the road from where I live now. But I left for a while. I went to college in upstate New York. I moved to California with my boyfriend. He graduated from boyfriend to partner and we moved across the country again, to New Jersey. I came back to Massachusetts and he became my husband.
I am not sure if I can even begin to explain the difference between the Massachusetts where I went to high school, ten years before marriage equality, and the Massachusetts where I live now with my husband and sons, ten years after marriage equality became a reality.
On the surface, it looks pretty much the same. My parents live on the same street, in the same house. Every morning, I drop my children off at school, and I drive down the same street that I drove down on the evening I came out to two of my closest friends.
But it’s not the same. Marriage equality is more subversive than it sounds. In small ways, my commingled sock drawer chips away at assumptions.
Ten years ago, reasonable people could oppose marriage equality in Massachusetts and remain reasonable people. In much of the United States, reasonable people can oppose marriage equality and remain reasonable people. But you can’t reasonably oppose civil equality in Massachusetts anymore. Declaring your opposition places you on the fringe. It makes you the bigot down the street. And most people don’t want to feel like bigots. They’re either forced to embrace their bigotry, and watch while people hurry their children away from them, or to change their minds. Or at least close their mouths.
I think you’ll like what the DOMA decision does for life in the United States.
There are plenty of days when the only gay person I talk to is my husband. On a day like today, when he’s out of town at a conference and I’m home with the kids, I don’t even get that. I’m relatively certain that I didn’t speak to any gay people today.
I dropped the kids off at school this morning, said good morning to some parents and some teachers. There’s a dad who is possibly gay, by which I mean that I get a vibe and have seen no evidence that he’s married to a woman. We see each other at both of my sons’ schools most mornings, but I didn’t run into him today. There’s a foster mom who I’m pretty sure is a lesbian, and if she has a foster child and if that child is in kindergarten, first, or second grade, we usually cross paths. I saw her car this morning, which has more bumper stickers than any other car in town. But I didn’t see her.
I took my sons to therapy this afternoon. They’re both straight women. One of them has a sister who is a lesbian, but it’s not like we’ve met. Does that count?
We had dinner with my parents. They’re straight, too.
It’s possible that the guy who made my coffee this morning is gay, or the woman at the drive-through pharmacy window.
Obviously, it’s also quite possible that any of these people I have assumed are straight, based on their marriages to people of the opposite sex, are bisexual.
When I was in school, I had lots of gay friends that I saw every day. When I had a job, I had plenty of gay coworkers that I saw every day.
Now, though? I live in the suburbs, in the Republican part of Massachusetts (that’s really a thing!), and I only see my gay friends on Facebook.
For gay men, Austin and I became parents extremely early. I’ll be thirty-five next month, and my sons are five and seven. Not a single one of my gay friends from high school or college is a parent yet. That will change next month, when a friend from high school and her wife are due to have a baby. Another friend from high school just announced that she’s expecting a baby later this year, too. I haven’t seen either of these women in seventeen years, though, and that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.
What I’m trying to say is that most of my interactions are with straight people. Strictly based on the numbers, it’s pretty likely that both of my children are straight, too.
And on 364 days out of 365, that’s fine.
But sometimes it’s exhausting.
Maybe it’s exhausting today because I’ve been by myself with the kids since Sunday afternoon, and I’m just exhausted.
Maybe it’s exhausting today because gay people were unceremoniously dropped from immigration reform, and it’s a vivid reminder that we really are second class citizens, begging for scraps from the table.
Maybe it’s exhausting today because I’m filled with anxiety waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the marriage cases this summer. What if we lose? Prop 8 broke my heart on election day in 2008 because it seemed like that year we maybe had a chance to change the momentum. And this year has been going so well for marriage equality, but what if it’s all just leading up to an enormous, heart-breaking loss at the Supreme Court this summer?
Whichever of those straws broke this camel’s back, today I am tired of straight people.
Not some straight people, not just ignorant straight people or bigoted straight people. All straight people.
Because here’s the reality: we can never really be sure of you. Not all the way. Sometimes people who look like allies throw you under the bus. Maybe you believe in my equality, but only until it’s inconvenient. Maybe you think it’s kind of sort of understandable that gay people were dropped from the immigration bill, because isn’t it better for the greater good to be served?
Tomorrow, I’ll go back to liking you. Tomorrow, I will try to politely explain how what you said devalues gay people and assumes our lives don’t have quite the same value as yours. Tomorrow, I will pretend it’s not annoying when you ask a question about my wife. Ha ha, of course it’s not annoying, and of course you assumed that I married to a woman! Why would you have ever considered any other possibility?
But tonight? I’m tired of you.