Thinking Of The Children

A reader writes:

I think there is something missing in this discussion that is often overlooked.  There is a reason that the anti-gay activists use the "gay marriage will be taught in schools" meme over and over again. The fact is that same-sex couples are not the norm.  Most children are only exposed to male-female relationships (ie. their parents, their friends' parents, etc.) and they are exposed to them to such an extent that they don't even warrant notice.  Even when Weddingkids children are exposed to same-sex couples, they are often explained differently than the relationships of married couples (eg."this is my friend/roommate").

When this dynamic changes, like when a teacher gets married to someone of the same sex, it goes against prior experience and suddenly becomes worthy of notice, leading to questions.  Now try to imagine the conversation that follows.  Parents may be forced to deal with questions of sexuality and love at an age when these discussions would not otherwise take place.

Topics that many parents already dread are now taking place earlier and on very unfamiliar or uncomfortable ground.  Perhaps the parents themselves have questions or concerns that they have never had the opportunity to explore fully. In the meantime, granting civil unions as opposed to full marriage means that no one has to worry about how they explain it to their kids when a woman calls another woman her wife or when a man calls another man his husband, and the matter gets to wait a while longer.  After all, no one is forcing them to drink at separate water fountains.

For the most part, I think this debate is far more about ignorance than it is about bigotry.  And I don't mean the ignorance that is often invoked in these issues, I mean a true lack of knowledge or context.

What civil marriage does is end the invisibility of gay couples, place them on an equal public footing as straight ones, and, without any formal teaching in school, provokes questions among the young. This is indeed difficult for parents, because they are used to being able to avoid the topic entirely and because they have very different feelings about this issue when it comes to their own kids.

What the current anti-marriage equality forces have now been reduced to is exploiting these parental fears. But it remains a quixotic and reactionary gesture. Why? Because civil marriage for gay couples is the genie already out of the bottle.

It cannot be made invisible or unmentionable in the present, let alone the future. Unless you try to seal your kids off from the world they live in - a world where several states and many countries treat gays and straights identically - a conversation with kids is simply unavoidable on this topic, just as it is on any other number of once unmentionable things that now pervade the culture.

So the right has a choice. They either double down and wage a war to strip gay couples of existing marriage rights, and use that reversal of rights to try to increase the stigma of homosexual orientation among the young. Or they can coopt the movement and use it to teach the virtues of marriage and family all round, inclusive of gay people.

In some ways, this latter dynamic helps straight parents. Homosexuality is now unavoidable as a public issue. Explaining homosexuality to your kids is much more salubrious and PG if you can place it in the rubric of straight life - "they just marry someone of the same sex" - rather than in the rubric of dark and unmentionable sexual acts. In my experience, children get this instantly. Certainly my own nieces and nephews do. The younger generation sees it clearly. But adult fears and phobias keep getting in the way.

I've done what I can to persuade the right that embracing the emergence of gay people and bringing them into family life and communal responsibility is the most authentically conservative option. The trouble is: this movement has ripened just as conservatism has become a governing philosophy based on fundamentalist religion rather than pragmatic, conservative adjustment to a changing society. And so we are where we are. It feels at times like a tragic historical mismatch in which conservatism missed its moment. But one day it will come. As the truth becomes more and more unavoidable.