Thoughts on the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, on having a gay family member, and on a new generation’s growing up in a vastly different America.
By Fred Mills
It was just last week when I felt compelled to weigh in on the Charleston massacre and what it meant for me to grow up in the South during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Now here I go again with another editorial that has nothing to do with BLURT and music. So be it; this is an important topic.
The Supreme Court decision on gay marriage literally brought tears of joy and relief to me, as have other advances for the gay community of the past decade or so. I’m married and heterosexual, but please don’t take the foregoing statement as another non-gay interloper attempting the journalistic equivalent of “hey, I’ve got black friends so of course I can’t possibly be racist or bigoted…” You know what I mean, so I’ll leave it at that. Given all the bullshit that has gone down here in North Carolina recently, from the odious Amendment 1 to the state Constitution that meant our state would not recognize same-sex unions to the legislation-via-conservative-blueprint Senate Bill 2 (aka the Religious Freedom Restoration act) that would allow public magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of performing marriage duties if it offended their personal religious beliefs, the SCOTUSA decision comes neither too little nor too late.
As with most attitudes people hold, mine is deeply personal. Aside from simply being raised by my parents to know what is right and to have a keen sense of social justice, I have long had close gay friends (whoops! there I go!), and I also happen to have a brother who is gay. I can’t say we are particularly close, and our long-distance communication (he lives on the West Coast) is sporadic, to say the least. We have very different sensibilities, and the fact that he is six years my junior means that for much of his life he would have been at least partially in my shadow and probably experienced some resentment, both overt and subconscious, towards me; that’s just how sibling dynamics often work. But I love him dearly, and I respect him as a human being who for most of his life has been able to live that life true to himself and not closeted. If memory serves, he came out to our mom during his late teens or early twenties; I can’t recall if he came out directly to our dad or if he left it to her to break the news. Both of them would have been very traditional-minded, but I am sure that after some initial discombobulation they accepted him because, after all, they loved him dearly. He may not realize that, but I am certain it’s true.
Parents, after all, are supposed to have unconditional love for their kids. As the father of a 14 year old boy, I experience that unconditional love as a near-primal force within me; it’s hard to explain in words, because it’s a far more vivid feeling than, say, sticking with your absolute favorite band or musician regardless of the missteps or bad albums that he/they make, or believingly fervently in the flag and the United States no matter what our country does in the so-called name of democracy. As you might imagine, a 14 year old doesn’t talk to his dad much—if at all—about romance or sex. Hell, when I was his age, I think I was sneaking peeks at my parent’s Harold Robbins novels, eventually graduating to shoplifting girlie mags at the local newsstand. I sure wasn’t going to go to my dad with my romantic woes (or fantasies). And sure, I’ll say stuff to my son like, “So, did you meet any cute girls at summer camp?” or, “Anybody special from school you need to stay in touch with over the summer?” But all I get in response is, “I dunno…”
Hypothetically, though, it does make me wonder, if I changed the sex in that first question, what would my reaction be if he answered in the affirmative. Obviously I regularly pat myself on the back for being open-minded and egalitarian, and there’s that unconditional love thing I mentioned too. But since I am a heterosexual and assume that my son is too, I would also be dishonest if I professed to know with 100% certainty what my deep-down emotional response would be if one day he came out to me, and I don’t think people can genuinely make accurate predictions of emotional responses – as opposed to intellectual responses – before events that trigger the emotions occur. I know this scenario is something that probably happens every day in some family, and in some instances it tears them apart and in others it just makes the bonds stronger; each father’s response is no doubt very individualized. It must have been hard on my brother when he came out to our mom, particularly given the era (‘60s/’70s) and region (Southern bible belt) in which he grew up. So with regards to that hypothetical coming-out scenario, all I can do is pray that my response would consistent with the way I have tried to live my life and how I have raised him, and that my unconditional love—that I will protect him and respect him and be part of his emotional support system as long as I live, through thick and thin—remains obvious to my kid.
(Aside: Hey son, for your 8th grade graduation gift I’m giving you a digital subscription to Playboy. Just don’t let your mom see it, okay?)
The reason I’ve been thinking of this is because New York Times columnist Frank Bruni penned a remarkable post-decision essay this past Sunday. Titled “Our Weddings, Our Worth,” it’s a personal musing on, in his words, “How will the ruling on same sex marriage alter the way Americans feel about the country, and how we feel about ourselves?” Bruni approaches it from the viewpoint of first a 12-year old grappling with the confusing matter of sexuality, then follows the young man through age 16, then 20, then 30, then to 45, at each juncture reflecting on how it feels to be “different” from the mainstream, to be a so-called “minority,” and to experience discrimination and perhaps even outright hostility. I have no doubt that these on-paper-hypothetical 12, 16, 20, 30 and 45 year olds are actually autobiographical. But what’s remarkable is that with his deft touch, Bruni puts the readers in the shoes of the man as he ages. After reading the piece it’s impossible to not come away with a deeper understanding of and empathy for people who grow up gay in America.
“The Supreme Court’s decision wasn’t simply about weddings,” concludes Bruni. “It was about worth… [the] justices told a minority of Americans that they’re normal and that they belong.”
As a heterosexual, I’ve never had to question my “worth” or whether or not I was “normal”: of course I “belonged,” so how could I possibly understand what it meant to be gay and to not belong? Or, more cynically, why should I even bother to attempt to understand?
Because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a shame it took a Supreme Court decision to even get people talking about this, but then it’s also a shame it took nine deaths in Charleston to get us finally talking about race on a personal and not an abstract level. Sometimes you just have to take your opportunities when they appear. And me, well, I’m also massively relieved that my son’s generation will be coming of age in an entirely different social and cultural landscape than I (and my brother) did.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, though. Time to get cracking.
Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT.