October 24, 2008
By Sandip Roy
New America Media
Editor’s Note: Churches have thrown their money and muscle behind Proposition 8 which would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. But essayist Richard Rodriguez says the real energy has moved away from the pulpit and into the homes. Richard Rodriguez is the author of Brown The Last Discovery of America.
In the end it might come down to our mothers.
In a few weeks California voters get to vote on Proposition 8 which could eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry. As the polls seesaw, noted author Richard Rodriguez is pinning his hopes on mothers. Over fifteen years ago he’d written about mothers arriving in San Francisco from small towns in the Midwest, clutching a scrap of paper with an address scribbled on it, to take care of sons with AIDS. A few weeks ago, Rodriguez says a woman came up to him in Utah. She said that as a Mormon she’d been always taught to honor her family. But her church is now telling her she must ostracize her gay son. “So the very church that tells me that family is crucial, is also telling me it’s not that crucial,” she told Rodriguez. “It’s often the mother, it’s very rarely the father, who says these things to you,” says Rodriguez reflectively.
Both sides in the fight over same sex marriage understand this. In an ad running in Indian and Pakistani magazines in California, Gurkirpal Kaur Dhillon, poses with her grandchild. “My grandkids, Mira and Kabir bring so much joy to my life,” says the white-haired suburban grandma. “But Prop 8 threatens to take away our right to a happy home by banning my son from marrying his life partner.” On the other side, a recent television commercial from the Yes on 8 camp shows a little girl running up to her mother telling her about how she learned in school that a prince can marry another prince.
Although the Mormon Church added its muscle to the Yes on 8 campaign, and the Catholic church just removed Father Geoffrey Farrow who came out as gay (and against Proposition 8) to his congregation, Rodriguez says the energy has moved away from the pulpit and into the home. “What’s radical right now in the gay community is not simply my love for (my partner) but the fact that so many gay friends of mine have children,” says Rodriguez. “In some ways the most radical figure is the daughter of Dick and Lynne Cheney who recently gave birth to a son, Samuel, which is a nice Biblical name.” Rodriguez admires the willingness of the Cheneys to acknowledge their grandson. “That’s where the energy’s going to come from,” he says. “It’s not going to come from within the liturgical circle. It’s going to come from communities no longer wanting to live with a child who’s on the outside.”
But it is also true that when Mayor Gavin Newsom started issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples in 2004 some of the strongest opposition came from some of the most family-oriented communities. Chinese Americans led the protest in San Francisco. Black churches and Hispanic preachers opposed it from the pulpit. But Rodriguez says having a gay child or grandchild complicates the issue. “My own family will vote against Prop 8 precisely because I am their uncle or brother or son. When the family dynamic takes over, orthodoxy gives way,” he says. “In families where there is a strong religious sense of family, for example my own, it would be impossible for me to sin my way out of my family.”
For Rodriguez it’s no coincidence that the fight over same sex marriage is happening at the same time as churches are wrestling with the role of women. Geoffrey Farrow in Fresno, in fact, told his congregation that the issue had been brought to the fore for him through conversations he’d had with women about the ordination of women priests. “These are simultaneous events women are not going back to the kitchen and gays are not going back in the closet,” says Rodriguez. “Prop 8 is merely a last gasp movement to try to control what is already out of the door.”
For Rodriguez, the anxiety around same sex marriage is linked to the anxiety so many men feel about a world where so many women are raising boys and girls without a man around. “This Olympic swimmer (Michael Phelps) who is the hero of the world, and who is the stands cheering him on, but his mother?” he says. “It’s becoming more and more clear to me that the notion of family is going to become the mother’s prerogative. (Prop 8) is a last attempt by people who feel threatened by a world they cannot control.”
It doesn’t mean, he adds, that Prop 8 will not pass. But he says it’s important to remember that the word “marriage” really belongs not to sonnets and poetry, but in divorce courts. “The more powerful word is love, the more powerful concept is love, do I love you, do you love me?” he says.
Richard says the fight for the right to that word has moved out of the churches and into the homes. In Gay Pride Parades the biggest cheers these days are often not for the drag queens in feather boas but for lesbian soccer moms pushing their toddlers. In the Castro the protests about sex toys in shop windows come not from outraged churchgoers but gay dads. In his book Days of Obligation, Rodriguez wrote about the delicious irony of gay men challenging the foundations of domesticity while living in Victorian houses in San Francisco’s Castro district. As they now stand at the corner of 18th Street and Castro distributing No on 8 badges to protect marriage, could the Victorians be having the last laugh?
Rodriguez chuckles and says what is radical is that gay life has moved from “the Polk Street sex scene at night” to “the day time neighborhood of the Castro with its churches and dry cleaners.” “This is no longer something you do in the dark,” he says. “My sisters and brothers have in their wills that in the event of their deaths I am to raise their children. That assumes a kind of moral seriousness to my life which is more radical than the permission to have my sexual life in private, in the dark.”