Increasingly often, people nod their heads enthusiastically, thinking they understand my queer family. The United States has been marching toward marriage equality during the 23 years since my son was born. When he was small, I was more likely to hear a quizzical "how did that happen?" when someone learned I'm a queer mom. Our existence is becoming more familiar thanks to media coverage; we're more legible as queer folks adopt children in larger numbers or use in vitro fertilization to conceive. Generally, we live openly in greater numbers than ever before. Indeed, we recently took a big step forward when the Supreme Court did not uphold the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Now I hear folks say things like, "Oh, right! You're a lesbian, and your son's father is gay, so he was the sperm donor, right?"
Well, not exactly. Believe me, I'm quick to make corrections.
Yes, I'm queer, and my son's dad is gay. We were best friends in college, and sometimes we had sex with each other, as people do. I was not "in the closet" and "living a lie," and I didn't find anything terrible or "not right" about our sex. I'm a complex person. So are you. That's what I tell people.
It was a surprise pregnancy, as many people experience for many different reasons. We decided we loved each other enough to move in together and raise the baby, and by the time he was born, we'd made a deeper -- and indeed more complex -- commitment to marry and make a family together in whatever ways made sense to us. Though we've since legally divorced (so that he can marry his current male partner of 15 years), we took the occasion of divorce to recommit ourselves to our family and our love.
Seriously, is this so hard to understand?
When I tell this story, I see the listener's original nod of simple understanding dissolve into confusion. Really? Your son's dad wasn't just a sperm donor? But you're a lesbian. And then, very quickly, something amazing happens. That look of "hey, I know this story" transforms into listening. Really listening and then understanding how my family works. That's the thing. My family works. We've maintained loving bonds for decades, and we're different from the heteronormative, consumption-focused, religiously mandated norm. Go figure.
Furthermore, the way I consciously create relationships and invite others to understand my life helps people judge their own relationships less harshly. On more than one occasion, a listener has said something like, "Hey, that's great. You know, when my husband moved away for work for two years, I felt like I couldn't tell anyone, because they'd think something was wrong with our marriage." Or, "Wow, that's kind of like my family. We grew into loving each other when the kids came, and I couldn't admit that we weren't storybook in-love from the very beginning." The truth is that families function well in a variety of ways, and often, people hide their differences for fear of disapproval.
Will queer folks start hiding their brilliant diversity and ingenuity too? I sure hope not. This trajectory toward public approval urges us toward a dangerous conformity. Really, it's dangerous for our children when we model conformity for the sake of public opinion. I want the children of queer families to have all the rights and privileges that other kids have, but we need to be careful how we get there. Largely, it's been by arguing that we're "normal," just gay. I think we should model higher aspirations for our children than being seen as "just like everyone else."
Let me be clear: I'm not against marriage itself. I'd like to see an increased national consciousness about the ways in which our government sanctions and defends certain family types, certain gender expressions and so on. Moreover, the family benefits that are available to some citizens should be available to all. We queers will simply have to stay aware of how we assimilate into mainstream thinking, lest we lose all the wonderful benefits of having been on the margins for so long.
Let me restate that: There are benefits to having raised my family outside the singular, consumer-driven fantasy of heterosexual marriage.
I learned early on that marriage is what I make it. Relationships should be clearly negotiated, because it's foolish to think two people automatically have the same ideas and desires. Indeed, life is what I make it, since the predetermined models do not fit me, in so many ways. My family also examined gender roles and the effects of patriarchy more closely than most. We disrupt gender rules frequently. A sense of ethics and thoughtful analysis of our various privileges and oppressions became our guide. Simply put, I didn't expect to benefit from social conformity, so it wasn't my guideline for living. My son -- a white, heterosexual man -- has a more thoughtful sense of his privilege and his personal sovereignty than I believe would've been possible had he not experienced difference.
It's not as though the recent steps toward marriage equality will eliminate discrimination and revoke our minority status. The trend toward white and middle-to-upper-class American queers laying claim to privilege worries me, however. Over the years, I've seen "gay pride" events shift from political to social in scope and meaning. Those events aren't just a nice day in the park, and I don't think my family is "just like" an average straight family. I think we're better than that. We had to be.
As the standard cultural model of marriage and family expand to fit more of us, we need to remember that it still doesn't fit all of us. We need to keep listening and paying attention -- to everyone's stories. Regardless of whether our families are queer or straight, married or single, intergenerational, rural or urban, nudists, Buddhists or raw foodists, our children should feel valued and supported. Let's not forget the benefits of being queer -- of being different.
I hope queer families keep practicing as much creativity and ingenuity as always. With vigilance, we can choose to see gay marriage as one step along the road toward a better life for all, but we mustn't break stride and forget those whose families are still in peril -- queer and otherwise. We can continue to work for human rights -- and not just our own. Now that's a lesson worth teaching our children.