Today, I shopped at J.C. Penney for the first time in a long time. Not that I was purposely avoiding it, it's just that I had no real reason to go, with so many other retail outlets closer to my home. But, today, I had the best reason to go of all.
The JC Penney May catalog advertisement featuring a happy lesbian couple displaying their mutual love for their daughters under the banner, "Freedom of Expression," left me with little choice, really. Paying tribute to my 80-year-old mother through her ability to grant me "freedom of expression" about my sexuality at this point in my life, and in hers, warranted a special Mother's Day gift purchased for, and from, no other. But my mom was not always so supportive. In fact, throughout my childhood she made it resoundingly clear that I was to live the life of what society deemed appropriately feminine by encouraging me to play with dolls, date boys, and ultimately marry one (I actually married two, and divorced both).
So, why this tribute to a woman who encouraged me to repress, rather than to express, my sexual identity early in life -- and why now? Nine months ago I "came out" to my mother and, much to my surprise, she was immediately and completely accepting. I know that this would not have been the case 40 years ago, and that's okay, because she has evolved, as have I. And, still, her acceptance of my lifestyle now that I'm in my 50s is no less critical or important to me than it would have been over four decades ago.
And that brings me to the larger issue at hand: the importance of accepting one's gay lifestyle, whether it be yours or another's. For as much as I experienced a lack of support as a child, it taught me to provide the very opposite experience as the mother of my own children. And I'm glad it did. Reiterating throughout my kids' childhood that the most important way to live is to be "true to who you are," my son who, two years ago at the age of 20, came out to me as homosexual, feels completely comfortable "in his own skin."
It was of no surprise to me, therefore, that when conservative group One Million Moms decried J.C. Penney's decision to select nationally-adored (but gay) Ellen DeGeneres to represent its brand, and then protested again when the national retailer published the "Freedom of Expression" ad in its catalog, that customer opinions of the national retailer actually rose, as mothers' increasingly positive perceptions of the brand enabled it to soar past levels of its closest competitor, Kohls. Obviously, these moms resisted the conservative organization's excuse to uphold "traditional values" as its reason to unsuccessfully launch a national boycott. Perhaps they knew, as not enough of us do, that so many of the "traditions" our country holds dear in distinguishing gay from straight behaviors are actually based on myths.
Let's consider the colors pink and blue, for example. Parents dare not dress their baby boys in pink for fear of "turning them gay," yet did you know that "pink is for girls" is a relatively recent idea? By the 1910s, when the advertising industry decided that our country would assign colors to each gender to promote products, blue was selected for girls and pink for boys. In fact, in a 1918 editorial from Earnshaw's Infants' Department, it was stated that pink was "a more decided and stronger color ... more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl." But this concept started to change by 1927, when there was disagreement as to which gender should get which color, and it wasn't until 1940 that the colors switched and advertisers decided to just go with pink for girls.
Did you also know that male crying used to be a symbol of "manliness" rather than of homosexuality? When the epics of ancient Greece were first transcribed to paper, Odysseus (the hero who killed a Cyclops and won the Trojan War) was described as breaking down into tears periodically, and at least once just because he listened to an emotional song. That's because in ancient Greek culture, "men were expected to cry if their family's honor was at stake." One of the greatest signs of true manliness was, in fact, to shed tears. This idea spread through most cultures, and continued through the Middle Ages and up to the Romantic Movement. Japanese samurai, medieval heroes and even Beowulf cried like babies throughout their adventures and, as recently as the 19th century, male tears were actually celebrated as a sign of honesty, integrity and strength.
And this brings us to one of the primary myths being addressed in this country today, and one that is already serving as a dividing line among voters as the upcoming presidential election continues to unfold -- the tradition of marriage. One of the most basic arguments against gay marriage is that it would result in the redefinition of the long-held tradition of marriage, which is defined as the marriage between one man and one woman. But this "tradition" is really not a long-held tradition at all. Our Biblical forefathers commonly married not only multiple women but had concubines as well, and although that practice eventually fell into disapproval, the Mormons reinstated it in the mid-1800s. Further, black slaves were considered property and hence were not allowed to marry until after the Civil War, when blacks could marry other blacks but not whites. Those laws remained in effect in almost one-third of our states until as recently as 40 years ago.
So, as history has demonstrated, our country has been continuously redefining marriage for centuries. Further, one of the arguments against gay marriage is that homosexuality underlies a mental illness and therefore does not deserve recognition or protection under the same laws provided for heterosexuals. However, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have declared that homosexuality is neither derived from mental illness nor moral depravity, but simply the way that a minority of our population expresses human love and sexuality. Science has further shown that homosexuality appears throughout the animal kingdom where questions of choice, mental illness and immorality certainly don't apply.
So, as this country embarks on one of the most traditional of celebrations on Sunday, Mother's Day, those of use who were fortunate enough to have a mom who accepts us for who we are should celebrate her for just that. For although this cannot, and should not, be wrapped in pretty pink paper, we can certainly shed powerful tears of joy as children who were fortunate enough to have such a loving and progressive mom. For what we will always know, above all, is that she is indeed one in a million.
Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is an Educational Psychologist and founder and publisher of Work Life Matters magazine.
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