Sunday is Father's Day, which this year happens to fall (delightfully) on my fourth wedding anniversary. Which got me thinking:
You know how you can watch a movie, then forget everything about it except for one scene that somehow sticks in your head for decades after? There's a special archive in my brain for scenes like that, wedged between Favorite Smells and Humiliations at Costco.
One movie scene that's lodged permanently in my "Best Of" archive is from a forgotten black-and-white picture shot in the forties. All I remember is a glamorous couple (like Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, but not) celebrating some huge piece of good news by tossing back their heads in laughter and toasting each other with martinis. Then digging into a couple of juicy, thick, perfectly-lit ribeye steaks.
I remember thinking, "One day, when I have something monumental to celebrate, that's how I'm going to do it." Which is why, about a month ago, I felt the compelling urge to take my young children out for martinis.
I found myself experiencing the kind of spontaneous, up-from-your-toes need to celebrate that follows giddy, unexpected, life-changing news: You're pregnant. You've beat cancer. You've won the Super Bowl or a Tony Award for best orchestrations.
President Obama had just appeared on television, unexpectedly and in the middle of the day. Oh Lord, I thought, bracing myself for a bad-news lockdown. What's going on? Are we declaring war again? Then a bleaker thought crossed my mind and I braced myself for the worst: he's divorcing Michelle.
But it was good news, huge news, completely unexpected and deeply personal: After years of hedging (Obama called it evolving), he was finally coming out and saying that he believes my family has a legal right to exist. That Kelly and I have a right to be married, like every other parent in America who hasn't already divorced. Most astonishingly, our president said this in the middle of a contentious election year.
Brave? Undeniably. Foolish? Possibly. Leadership? Yes.
Obama's long, circular journey to endorsing gay marriage (or as I like to call it, marriage) reminded me of another classic movie moment, the familiar scene that seems mandatory for half the films set in New York City: a character gets stuck in a revolving door, spinning dizzily around and around until he's finally spat out onto the sidewalk, gasping for air.
Like the hapless hero of those movies, our president had been stuck for nearly four years in his own evolving door, politically trapped in its endless spin. Until the fine, sunny day last month when his conscience finally spat him out onto the sidewalk of the 21st century.
In explaining his decision to Robin Roberts of ABC News, Obama cited dinner conversations with his young daughters:
You know, Malia and Sasha, they've got friends whose parents are same-sex couples. And I -- you know, there have been times where Michelle and I have been sittin' around the dinner table. And we've been talkin' and -- about their friends and their parents. And Malia and Sasha would -- it wouldn't dawn on them that somehow their friends' parents would be treated differently. It doesn't make sense to them. And -- and frankly -- that's the kind of thing that prompts -- a change of perspective. You know, not wanting to somehow explain to your child why somebody should be treated -- differently, when it comes to -- the eyes of the law.
As I watched, my neck began to throb from emotional whiplash. As Obama was making his announcement on my TV, still sitting on the coffee table in front of me was that morning's paper, its headline blaring that North Carolinians had overwhelmingly voted that my husband and I would forever be marital outlaws in their state, despite being legally married in our own.
It wasn't just same-sex marriage they were outlawing. No, the Tar Heels went to great lengths on election day to erase families like mine from any sort of legal recognition or protection in North Carolina by adding these words to their state constitution: "Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized," banning in one fell swoop not only marriage, but civil unions and domestic partnerships too. They might as well have posted a sign outside the official North Carolina State Treehouse: No Homos Allowed. We. Don't. Like. You.
On the Sunday after Obama made his historic announcement, a North Carolina minister named Charles Worley decried it, preaching this in his Sunday sermon:
I figured a way out. A way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers. Build a great big large fence. Fifty or a hundred miles long. Put all the lesbians in there. Fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and homosexuals. And have that fence electrified 'til they can't get out. Feed 'em. And you know what? In a few years, they'll die out....
There were lots of amens and hallelujahs.
As a parent, I wondered: When I'm saying prayers with my kids before they go to bed tonight, how am I going to explain that a minister of God who lives just a couple of hours from their grandparents' house thinks we should all be dropped into a concentration camp and trapped behind an electric fence until we "die out"?
Answer: I'm not. I'm giving them ice cream instead. Three scoops each.
"You must feel awful about this," friends had called to say. "You're from North Carolina, right?"
"South Carolina," I corrected them. Emphatically. "I'm from South Carolina. My home state would never enshrine that sort of discrimination into its constitution. Not in 2012." Then I remembered, Oh yeah, South Carolina already did it. Six years ago.
Which, in a way, made the North Carolina news sort of nostalgic, in a queasy way. That sick sort of way you feel nostalgic when you run into someone you used to have feelings for, then remember the night they threw up on you.
Kelly and I travel to South Carolina with the kids to visit my family two or three times a year. I'm close to my family and love going home. Legally, though, it can be a mindbender. We fly out of Los Angeles as a legally married couple with two children and land at Columbia Airport as two unrelated strangers toting a couple of illegitimate who-knows-what-the-hell-they-are. Or as I prefer to call them, Elizabeth and James.
It can be genuinely nerve-wracking. When you're a parent, in the back of your mind you're forever planning contingencies for how you might handle emergencies that arise unexpectedly. It's part of the job. For families like mine, it's more complicated, especially in states that don't recognize either our marriages or parental rights.
Say we happen to be in South Carolina (or North Carolina or any other state that proudly bans recognition of our family unit). And say the children and I are injured in a bad car accident. Will Kelly be recognized as my spouse? Or as our children's parent? Would he be able to make medical or legal decisions for us? Or only the child he's biologically related to? No way to know. It hasn't been tested in the courts.
Outside the nine states that legally recognize our marriage, how our family might be treated in a crisis could easily come down to the luck of the draw. In other words, totally random. When laws are random or nonexistent, bad things can happen. In an emergency your fate can be determined by whatever law enforcement or medical authorities happened to show up that day. With whatever political and/or religious beliefs they happen to carry with them.
You'd like to believe their humanity would kick in, that they'd see your plight and be compassionate and helpful. That's not always the case.
In 2007, Kelly's college friends Jan and Lisa flew with their adopted children from Seattle to Miami to embark on a family vacation cruise. While Jan was below deck unpacking, Lisa suffered a brain aneurysm on the ship's basketball court as their kids watched helplessly. Lisa was rushed to a hospital, a hospital that decided not to let Jan or the kids in to see her, because the women weren't legally married and no federal or Florida law said they had to.
Lisa died that day, with the woman she loved and the kids they'd spent years raising together sitting helplessly not fifty feet away -- for eight hours -- on the other side of a wall. I remember standing in my living room in California a few days later, getting the call from Jan, still in shock, not just from Lisa's sudden death, but the way she and their children had been treated in its aftermath.
I was stunned that such a thing could happen in America.
When Kelly and I return to South Carolina with the kids, I can't help feeling iffy. These should be joyful trips to visit my parents and brothers for birthdays, graduations and holidays. But with no legal protections in place for the likes of us, anything could happen.
When we visited for Christmas a few years back, my brothers were also visiting with their wives and kids. We're a big family and it was a very full house. Too full, so Kelly and I had made reservations to stay at a hotel near I-26. When my father heard this, he hesitated, then told us not to worry about that, saying we'd find a way to sleep everyone under his roof. But there aren't enough beds, we pointed out. I assured him that we'd be fine sleeping, showering and changing clothes at a hotel.
"That's not the problem," he said after a moment, growing visibly uncomfortable. "Don't worry about it. We'll have George and his family stay at the hotel."
"What difference does it make?" I persisted, thick as a board. It was a few seconds before he took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes and finally answered: "Bill, I can't help being your dad. You'll see when you're my age. It never ends. I know you're grown and you've got a family of your own. But you're still my son and no matter how old I get it's still my job to protect you. And I'm not willing to chance the wrong person in this town seeing you and Kelly check into a hotel room with your kids." He paused. "This isn't California."
I started to protest, then stopped myself. When my dad talks I usually try to listen, especially when it comes to people. He's a retired doctor who practiced in my hometown for over fifty years. He treated everyone from the president of the cotton mill to the janitor at the gas station. Rich, poor, black, white, he's known them all. And delivered many of their babies, probably a quarter of the town's adult population. More than anyone else I can imagine I'd say my dad knows the hearts and minds of the locals. And if he thinks something bad could happen to us if we ran into the wrong person, it probably could. Luck of the draw.
My brother's family ended up in the hotel.
On the night of Obama's announcement, I heeded my gut's call that it was a night to celebrate. We phoned our friends Andrew and Jonathan and their two kids and agreed to meet for martinis and a fancy steak dinner. In the end, I opted not to poison my children with alcohol. They had Sprite. And chicken tenders off the kids' menu. And I remembered I hate martinis. I ordered the drink I always order, because it's a favorite of my dad's, bourbon and ginger-ale. And a plate of ribs. You can take the boy out of the South....
Two dads means Father's Day is always a double-header at our house. But as I mentioned, this year it's an even bigger deal because it falls on June 17, the anniversary of our wedding four years ago. Gay couples were only allowed to marry in California for five months, until Prop 8 took that right away. But we married the first day it was possible, because Kelly had a feeling something like that might happen. So we have an official license, signed by a priest, real witnesses and emblazoned with the California state seal. A license the state Supreme Court, after a challenge from the Prop 8 folks, ruled that no majority vote can ever take way from us.
Which makes Kelly and me feel happy and the kids feel safe.
Married. It's a good word. It rolls off the tongue, two easy syllables, much less cumbersome than the words some would have define us. Like civil-unioned, or domestic-partnered, or Sodomites-the-Bible-says-should-be-taken-to-the-edge-of-town-and-stoned-to-death.
For most of this Sunday, Kelly and I will spend Father's Day with our kids, celebrating our own fathers and the many ways they shaped us. Hopefully, our own children, the ones we struggle daily not to screw up, will proudly slip us handmade cards and art made out of toilet paper rolls and elbow macaroni that keeps coming unglued.
But that night I'm stealing my husband away. In honor of our marriage and the President's historic, public support of it, I'm taking Kelly out for steaks, which he won't eat because he doesn't like beef. And martinis, which I won't drink because they taste like gasoline.
Just like in the movies.
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This post is the eighth in a series of Spilled Milk columns by William Lucas Walker that chronicle his misadventures in Daddyland.
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