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Bob Ostertag

Bob Ostertag

Posted: December 23, 2008 03:23 PM

Gay Marriage, Part 2

What's Your Reaction:

Thank you, everyone, for all the thoughtful comments posted to my blog on gay marriage. Many intelligent and wise things were said, from all different points of view.

I did not appreciate, however, the angry messages I received in my personal email account. Not that I found them a huge invasion of privacy, but I wonder why some people went to such lengths to communicate with me privately when a rich and interesting public forum was immediately available. Was the point to intimidate me? Or was there some reason they did not want others to see their words?

To me, the whole point of this effort is to have this discussion in public. So I will respond to a couple of these private emails. Though the writers did not respect my privacy, I will respect theirs and not give their names. Here is one such message:

Count me among the stunned. Not that another gay man would hold the opinions you have about marriage. I suppose I share some of those. What stunned me is your reference to the BeliefNet interview -- including a snippet -- in defense of Rick Warren's, I suppose, "reasonableness". Did you miss his clarification of those remarks? He opposes civil unions. He opposes any legal recognition of same-sex couples AS couples. Warren's positions are pretty well documented, but I hope this is just an oversight on your part. You would do your readers a service by correcting your article.

OK. I will now do the service the writer suggests by examining the clarifications Rick Warren made to his interview. The person who wrote the email is referring to the fact that after the Belief.net interview in question, Warren wrote back to Belief.net to "clarify" some of the things that he said in the interview. For example:

Q: What about partnership benefits in terms of insurance or hospital visitation?

A: You know, not a problem with me.

[Clarification from Pastor Warren 12/15: I favor anyone being able to make anyone else the beneficiary of their health or life insurance coverage. If I am willing to pay for it, I should be able to put a friend, partner, relative, or stranger on my coverage. No one should be turned away from seeing a friend in the hospital. But visiting rights are a non-issue in California! Since 1999, California has had a domestic partnership law that grants gay couples visiting rights and all the other rights. Prop 8 had no -zero -effect on those rights.]


Several writers in the public comments here on HuffPo cited this clarification as an example of why they was incensed that Obama invited Warren to the inauguration. They thought it was offensive that Warren had equated the relationship of a gay couple with that of two strangers.

Explaining why I don't find this offensive will require some space, but it is worth the effort because it goes to the heart of the matter. In my blog, I wrote the following:

Is [marriage] really where decades of struggle for sexual freedom ends? ... Not for me. Not for my family, with its various men, each of whom I love in a different way, a child, and two moms. Not that my family is any sort of queer norm. But that's the beautiful thing about queer culture: there is no norm. We piece together our families, holding on to those relationships that work.

The fact is most of us won't marry even if we have the right to. We are putting all our resources into winning a right that only the few of us in long-term conventional couple relationships will enjoy. What's more, we are creating a social climate in which young queers are encouraged to recast their vision of the relationships they seek to favor the married couple. This is not only a loss for the vibrancy of queer culture, it is a disservice to young people who will not be well served by their nuclear family ambitions.

Which led one commenter to reply:

There are many gay men who don't like the narcissistic, sex-obsessed world of gay bars and saunas. Instead, they simply want to settle down and live in a relationship. This is what gay rights is really about. Gay marriage is therefore fundamental to gay rights. If there are gay men who want to live their lives in the sleazy world of bars and saunas, go right ahead. But that isn't the definition of gay rights.

Now, I had not intended this discussion to get this personal, but since the comment above is just one of many which suggest there must be something "sleazy" about my personal life that led me to my position on gay marriage, let me tell you a little about my family, the one the writer above describes as so narcissistic. One of the several men I love, and think of as part of my family, and yes, am sexually intimate with - one of them died a few weeks ago. I don't really have a word for my relationship with him. Certainly not "husband." I think the closest I could come is "most significant other."

His name was Hank Wilson. I know all of us think of the people we love as extraordinary, and I certainly thought that of Hank. He was a pillar of the gay and lesbian community in San Francisco for 35 years. He was a founder of the Gay Teachers Coalition, which was at the center of the struggle which became the focal point of the campaigns against Anita Bryant and then against the Briggs Initiative. These were the formative political battles of the post-Stonewall gay and lesbian community in San Francisco, and that launched the career of Harvey Milk.

Since then Hank was involved in the founding of Bay Area Gay Liberation (the Bay area's "gay liberation" group of the 1970s), LYRIC (the main organization for queer youth in San Francisco), a gay speakers bureau to educate San Francisco high school and middle school students about gay and lesbian issues (which became CUAV), the Butterfly Brigade, the Castro Street Safety Patrol, the Carry a Whistle Defense Campaign (for those of you queers out there who carry whistles in your pockets in case of gay bashing, those whistles can be traced back to Hank), the SF Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, ACTUP, Survive AIDS, the AIDS Candlelight Vigil, the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center and the Valencia Rose queer cabaret.

But that was in his free time. What he really did for the last 30 years was serve the homeless people of San Francisco, first managing a hotel that served homeless people with AIDS, and then an AIDS resource center for the homeless.

The Proclamation by which declared a Hank Wilson Day was declared by the City of San Francisco reads in part, "Whereas, as a progressive and proactive community leader, Hank Wilson has been instrumental in creating what's right with San Francisco's LGBT Community, and Whereas, as a pillar and a living legend in San Francisco's LGBT community, Hank Wilson has been largely responsible for helping to create some of San Francisco's most important and enduring institutions," etc. etc.

I wrote a blog about Hank's life and death here. I mention some of these details about Hank's life in reply to many of the criticisms that suggested that me and my crowd don't understand the importance of activism and are "selling out" the gay community. (I particularly liked the suggestion that when I come to my senses and get married the ceremony should take place in "Uncle Tom's Cabin.")

Anyway, Hank died a few weeks ago. Fortunately, visitation rights never became an issue. No nurse batted an eye when I would crawl into bed with him in his hospital room. Some critics seem to think I am unaware that San Francisco is very different from many other places in this regard. What I would like them to try to keep in mind is that San Francisco was not always like this. It is like this because people like Hank won this.

Let's imagine that Hank and I had gone through his final days in the old San Francisco, and visitation rights had become an issue. Gay marriage would not have done a thing for us. You see, that's just is not how men like Hank and I build our relationships.

What's more, if the people who found Rick Warren's statement offensive had their way, and the gay marriage movement was successful, and marriages - gay and straight - were given privileged recognition over all other relationships, I would not have had the right to visit Hank. Much less get into bed with him and comfort him. But if Rick Warren had his way, and the law of the land was, "I should be able to put a friend, partner, relative, or stranger on my coverage. No one should be turned away from seeing a friend in the hospital" - then I would have had the right to visit the man I most loved as he was dying.

One of Hank's secrets for sustaining all his activism was that he lived on next to nothing, sleeping on the floor of the same roach-infested one room apartment for thirty years. His left most of his meager belongings to the GLBT Historical Society. But suppose he had lived differently and amassed an estate that I had inherited. Gay marriage wouldn't have helped me with taxes.

Here is another email that arrived at my private address:

I read your piece in Huffington Post about gay marriage. Well written and thoughtful. However, I find it incredibly insulting to have someone like yourself who, as a bisexual, has access to heterosexual privilege and apparently believes you can choose your "lifestyle" proselytize to those of us who want the equal rights of marriage that somehow were undermining the real issues of equal rights for sexual minorities. I'm glad that marriage isn't for you, it sounds like you'd be terrible at it. Obviously piecemealing your relationships with your female and male lovers and with your child works for you

Well. Hmmm. I am not "bisexual." Though I don't think it would be a problem if I was. Whatever that word even means, but let's not go there. But since you raise the women and children in my life, let me say a word or two about them. One of my daughter's mothers is an Episcopal clergy person. Like Hank, she is deeply involved in service to homeless people. She wrote a book called Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, which some of you may be interested in. My daughters' mothers were married during the little window of time that marriage was available to them in San Francisco. That was wonderful that they were able to do that. It was meaningful to them.

Now, I never had the slightest concern about child visitation rights with my child, because that is not the sort of family I built. But suppose my family was less secure than it is, and the relationship between myself and my daughter's mothers soured to the point that visitation rights became an issue. And let's imagine that the mothers' marriage was legally recognized as having every inch of rights that straight marriages have. Wouldn't help me one bit.

*

In addition to the line of criticism suggesting my sleazy and narcissistic relationships blind meto the importance of more profound relationships like married couples, there is another line of criticism in the comments which derogatorily refer to my concerns about non-nuclear family relationships as "academic." As if unconventional relationships like mine are so rare they would only be concern when writing a college paper, and not out in the "real world." So let me make some comments about the real world as I have experienced it.

Over the last few decades we have had a major AIDS epidemic in the US. Every part of the country experienced it differently. I would like to acknowledge the comments from those who made reference to how difficult life continues to be in parts of this country far from the gay urban centers. I know something about that. I spent a lot of my childhood in southern New Mexico, in a town of about 100 people. You had to drive an hour to buy gas or groceries. Ranch country. Not Hollywood ranch country, not a suburban fantasy of what ranch country might be like, and not gay-guys-dress-up-in-cowboy-outfits-line-dancing ranch country. Real working ranches. A few years ago a gay guy out there who was a friend of a friend got murdered for his sexuality, but you likely didn't hear about it because that part of the country is way more remote than southern Wyoming. But I know the area around Cheyenne too, because the part of my childhood that wasn't spent in New Mexico was spent in northern Colorado not far from Cheyenne. Mathew Shepherd died in the hospital my younger sisters were born in.

So yes, I live in San Francisco, but I know what it is like to be queer in an intensely homophobic place.

I have also lived through the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, which was its own kind of nightmare. The gay community here is very geographically concentrated. We walk to each others' homes. We had more people dying per square block than anywhere else. It is truly hard to imagine now what it was like. And here is something that seems to have been forgotten in all this gay marriage discussion: the relationships that got us through that apocalypse were often not couples, but every conceivable combination of human love.

Take my friend Tom Calvanese. Back in the early days of the epidemic, Tom was not in a couple but a trio: three young gay men deeply in love. Before they went to get their HIV tests, they promised each other that they would take care of each other until death, no matter whose tests came back negative or positive. "Till death do us part." Those weren't the words they used, but that is what they meant. Tom was 25.

All three tests came back positive. Jimmy got sick first. Tom and Donald cared for Jimmy right through to the bitter end. Then Donald got dementia. Full blown dementia, like someone with extremely advanced Alzheimer's, but a young man in his prime. Donald lived on for seven years that way. Tom cared for him right through to the end. In the middle of it all, Tom went to work with Hank serving homeless people with AIDS in San Francisco.

Tom:

When Donald got dementia, people said really strange things to me. They said, 'What are you doing? Put a pillow over his head. You have to get on with your life.' But you know I never even considered it.


In some ways it was easier because there were three of us. Back then there was this notion that a positive test was a death sentence. People were dropping dead left and right. Sitting there with three people, it's easier, because you are going to go through it together. It was much harder when it was just two of us, I had to reach out to people outside.

I know something about commitment, and state recognition of marriage has nothing to do with it. What I want to say to those people [who focus on gay marriage] is, "Why don't you try living the commitment I lived, and then we'll talk. If you want to talk about this as a legal issue, or a financial issue, or a tax issue, that's fine. But don't tell me you're about committed relationships. Talk about what you're talking about. Go ahead, get married, get divorced, do it all, but don't pretend that you have figured out the way for us to all be.

Gay marriage wouldn't have done anything for Tom. Or Donald or Jimmy, or so many other people in San Francisco during the epidemic, when the meaning of commitment suddenly crystallized for many gay men. Rick Warren's idea "no one should be turned away from seeing a friend in the hospital" would have addressed their needs. Gay marriage would not have.

*

If you read through the comments to my blog, you probably noticed that many of the supportive comments began along the lines of, "Finally! I have been waiting for someone to say this... " There is a reason for that reaction.

Over the last decade, as the more conservative, more white, and more wealthy wing of the movement has invested more and more into the gay marriage issue, I and a lot of people who share my views didn't want to rain on the parade. It wasn't "our issue," but hey, if this means something to a lot of other people, which it evidently does, then good luck to them. I'll just keep working on things that matter more to me. This sentiment was echoed by many comments.

So why did I decide to write that blog now, and why did so many people respond with a sigh of relief and a "finally"?

Speaking for myself, there were two reasons. First, I began to notice that, at the college where I teach, student activists have no idea that there is a whole generation of queers who wouldn't trade their unconventional extended families for anything, and who are completely left out in the cold by the whole gay marriage thing. And I thought things have reached the point where people like me do them a disservice by not speaking our minds to people like them.

More importantly, we have come to the point where the gay marriage issue has intruded so profoundly on gay politics that I am told I should protest the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first ever black American president, and the man who finally vanquished the Bush-Cheney reign of terror, because of gay marriage. Because he invited a minister to say a prayer who opposes gay marriage, but whose main priorities are climate change, poverty, and AIDS.

AIDS? Hello?

I know that we now, after years of struggle, have effective AIDS medications that are widely available to Californians, so the attention of many has moved on to gay marriage. AIDS is, like, so nineties. But AIDS continues as a global epidemic which some of us have not forgotten about.

My friend John Iversen is another gay man with a political vision that is centered in the gay community but is extends far beyond. He is part Native American. He knows reservation life. He was at the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 (I know, most of you will have to look that up, here you go.) He worked with the United Farm Workers. Then came ACTUP and two decades of AIDS activism. John has had AIDS now for twenty years. Not just HIV, AIDS. Like Hank, he also found his way through the epidemic with the support of a very unconventional extended family which allowed him to continue his activism unabated in spite of prolonged illness. Lately he spends a good deal of his time raising money for an AIDS orphanage in Uganda.

For anyone who wants to tell John that he should be protesting the inauguration of the first black American president because of the inclusion in the ceremony of a minister who opposes gay marriage but has given millions of dollars to AIDS relief in Africa -- the comment column is open.

Read Part 1 here.