Obama has made quite a few gestures toward us LGBTers over the past few days. There was his mention of gay dads on Father’s Day, the Labor Department’s edict granting gay workers the same rights upheld by the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, and earlier this week the President delivered a speech at the White House’s gay pride reception where he specifically mentioned our families. It would seem Obama is living up to his promises to include gay families in the larger American family.
So often our battles for equality are framed in terms of us as individuals, and it is admirable that Obama is drawing attention to the simple truth that none of us lives alone, that we, in fact, belong to our own families. But what about gay families themselves? What about our loves and the shared lives the President references? Surely we deserve more sweeping and all-encompassing actions by this administration than yet another edict, yet another speech, don’t we? What about action on ENDA and DADT and DOMA? Where is the palpable change? Before the past few months, I would have been irritated with these most recent displays of incrementalism. I would have worried that the old style way of fighting for LGBT rights was ruining the modern LGBT movement’s chances to achieve full and speedy equality.
But now, after recently losing my grandmother and personally experiencing the intensity of family and both the limits and ends of its frayed, knotted ties, after marveling at just how far those ties will stretch before snapping, I have a different reaction, a tempered one. I don’t feel cynical at these gestures. I am not upset that they’re not more substantial. I’m not shaking my fist and pointing a finger at Obama’s dragging feet. Instead, I am quietly grateful for each and every mention of us and our families.
In their own ways, each of his inclusive remarks is a much-needed reminder — not just for straight people but also very much for us — that each one of our families is real, that each one of our lives is not lived in isolation. Yesterday, in his speech at the White House LGBT reception, Obama said:
Now, look, the fact that we’ve got activists here is important because it’s a reminder that change never comes — or at least never begins in Washington. It begins with acts of compassion — and sometimes defiance — across America. It begins when ordinary people — out of love for a mother or a father, son or daughter, or husband or wife — speak out against injustices that have been accepted for too long. And it begins when these impositions of conscience start opening hearts that had been closed, and when we finally see each other’s humanity, whatever our differences.
Those words reminded me of a recent discussion I had with a friend, one half of a lesbian couple who has lived in an especially conservative part of San Diego for the last ten years.
I told her that I thought she and her wife were incredibly brave to have pioneered into such a hostile environment. And she told me that the hardest part wasn’t being told by her neighbors that their kids couldn’t play together or painting over the hateful words often scrawled on their home or even overlooking the pro-Prop 8 signs littering her street. Those insults, she said, she could handle. For her and her wife the hardest and most important part was fighting to maintain personal dignity, each and every day. The struggle to be a role model for her wife and their children was nearly overwhelming, but she had to do it. And, you know what? She did. And the neighbor kids who weren’t allowed to play with her children? Years later she now babysits them.
Words like Obama’s can infuse our quotidian battles with just a bit more energy to fight the good fight. The recognition that we are here offers each one of us and our families just a bit more dignity, maybe enough to get through one more day of name-calling and and abuse and fear. And while my friend’s courageous struggles to shroud her family in love and dignity might have been silent, her resilience shouted for every gay person, “This is my husband, this is my wife. These are our children. This is our home. Look, we matter, we’re real. This is why love. This is why marriage. This is why equality.”
Is a new edict or a new speech, then, misguided or useless if it asks us to look around at our own family and recognize that we are ultimately fighting for them as much as for ourselves? Is a reminder that we exist, connected to many wonderful people in many beautiful ways, really worth complaining about?
Another friend of mine once told me that he always wanted to have a gay family like Mrs. Madrigal’s in Tales of The City. And what gay man hasn’t fantasized about such a glorious mix of friends and relatives creating a loving family of one’s choosing? The idea is as captivating as it is necessary. Why family? Because what it comes down to is this: when you’ve been to hell and back with someone, at least you know there’s a way out. And maybe someone to show you the way.