In his recent State of the Union address, our commander-in-chief promised, "We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families, gay and straight." After a heartbreaking week in which Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan died, leaving her wife and daughter without the benefits owed to surviving spouses and children in the military, because of DOMA and inequality in military benefits, only a day before the outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta extended some (but by no means all) benefits to same-sex couples in the military. So we should be happy to be mentioned by the president in the State of the Union address and encouraged that change is coming to the military, meaning that Charlie Morgan, who valiantly, heroically battled DOMA as she was dying, will not have died in vain. And I am.
But at the same time, I chafe at "families, gay and straight." What is a gay family? For that matter, what is a straight family? Is your family gay or straight? How do you determine this?
Of course, I know that I am being intentionally obtuse. I know that what President Obama means is families headed by same-sex couples. The problem, though, is that families are so much more complicated than that, and boiling them down to "gay" or "straight," not to mention contrasting the two types as polar opposites, communicates things that are just not true and that are harmful. Just as the term "gay marriage" is problematic, so is the notion of "gay families," in my opinion.
What about families that are headed by a single parent? Is that family "gay" or "straight"? What about children who are being raised by two couples, comprising parents and stepparents? Or children who are being raised by their grandparents? Or LGBTQ children who are homeless or in foster care? Does only the identity of the parent(s) or guardian(s) matter? What about a couple comprising two people of the same sex who do not have children? Are they a family? Clearly, the media would not have been so drawn to the case of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan if there were not a beautiful little girl, blameless and innocent, whose tragic loss of a parent would be compounded by the loss of financial support and benefits. However, as the story of Dwaye D. Beebe and Jonathan Franqui illustrates, it is not only children who suffer from the denial of benefits in the military as a result of DOMA; lack of access to military bases, housing, and health care may keep a partner from caring for her or his military spouse's ailing parent.
What it comes down to is that families are families are families whether they are headed by two moms, two dads, one grandma, an adoptive parent, a mom and a stepdad and a dad and a stepmom, a single mother or any of the many, many, many other possibilities. What President Obama gained in specificity (the phrase clarified for those who might have missed that he was talking specifically about equality for lesbians and gay men) he lost in the implication that there is something qualitatively different about a so-called "gay family." There is not.