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July 26, 2007
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
Heedless youth, ours to guard
How quickly times change. Last month, just two years after my local public television station responded to pressure from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings by pulling an episode of Postcards from Buster because it featured a child with lesbian parents, the same station scheduled Gay Pride Month programming.
One item on the PBS June schedule was a documentary about the Turtle Creek Chorale (the gay men’s chorus in Dallas) entitled “The Power of Harmony.” In one scene, a couple from the chorus stands next to the risers holding their new son from Guatemala as the chorus sings, and members of the chorus greet the baby. This simple moment forms a glowing ritual of welcome to the chorus family.
That epiphany is a direct result of the fight for LGBT visibility in the media. Our victories come despite continued complaints from groups like the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America that they are suffering discrimination if they are not allowed to banish from the common airwaves anything they consider icky. As they correctly perceive, our families’ visibility is gradually changing the social norm.
Linguistic adjustments to same-sex parents occur readily. Whether it’s Daddy and Papa or (following Dr. Seuss) Thing One and Thing Two, the children take it in stride. Invariably, adults are the ones who create the problems. Children’s innocence shields them, at least initially, from other people’s bigotry. The guilelessness of a child’s smile, while a sign of vulnerability, also contains the power to change the world.
My little friend Sam’s daddies travel a lot, so he has had play dates on cruise ships and has disrupted tea at the Savoy. Daddy Will, after encountering considerable rudeness toward his child during a visit to the Greenwich observatory, wrote, “What is wrong with these people?!” Of course one can understand people’s exasperation at a baby wailing in the middle of the Love-Death during a performance of Tristan und Isolde, or at an unsupervised toddler running around a restaurant tripping waiters, but expecting children to be entirely absent from public places is expecting too much. To the extent gay parents display an inability to control their children in public, they have plenty of competition from their straight counterparts.
The most important change caused by the presence of children in our communities is the way it changes us. Prior to the arrival of AIDS, the first decade or so after Stonewall in gay urban communities was like a visit to a sexually awakened Never Never Land (I am talking about J. M. Barrie, not Michael Jackson). Having children to protect gives us perspective and reconnects us to our siblings, our neighbors and our own past. When choosing parenthood forces us to reconcile freedom and responsibility in our daily lives, we are not diminished but enriched.
Last August, when the gay sports group Team DC organized a “Night Out” at a Washington Nationals game, I attended with my friend Craig. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington walked onto the field and gave a splendid rendition of the national anthem. My former neighbor Michael sat in front of us with his 5-year-old son, who quickly demanded my binoculars and then switched them for Craig’s when mine proved too large. Michael asked me to look after the boy while he went to get refreshments. The rambunctious child was soon standing in the aisle. We were in the cheap seats, which at RFK Stadium meant that he was at the top of a few dozen steep concrete stairs. I grabbed his hand, which of course he resisted, and I held him tight. Because I prevented him from plunging headlong down that staircase, he was still around this year at Washington’s Black Lesbian and Gay Pride festival, riding around GLAA’s booth in his Heelies (sneakers with wheels in the soles), blowing soap bubbles and having me open packets of candy for him. Who in the world invented those shoes, a consortium of underemployed emergency room doctors?
I am much more inclined to be protective of children than I was as a child to endure such attentions. As a child I played in the creek; crawled through drainage pipes; attempted a backward flip on the diving board that nearly cracked my head open; and taped a firecracker to the back of a paper airplane, lit it, and aimed it at my neighbor’s upstairs window. The fact that my mother had seven children meant that she couldn’t possibly keep track of what all of us were doing. I credit my guardian angel for keeping me from drowning, blowing my fingers off or burning down the neighbor’s house.
I could blame corrupting influences, but I must confess I was always fascinated by the local hoodlums. I look back in amazement at the frequency of my rehearsals for the Darwin Awards, which are given to those who improve the gene pool by dying before they can reproduce. On the other hand, my mother never put safety latches on the cabinet under the kitchen sink, yet somehow I never drank from the ammonia bottle nor tried to eat Drano crystals despite their smelling like wintergreen candy. One thing that saved me was my resentment of peer pressure, which meant that I didn’t do things just because another kid dared me to. (If he thought it was such a fine idea, why didn’t he try it?) I also had the advantage of being a fast runner.
I am long past my days of feeling immortal, and much quicker to consider things like insurance rate hikes, repair costs and emergency room bills. As I pass by the outdoor play area of my office’s day care center, I toss a ball back over the fence to some three-year-olds who had lost it, and a little girl squeals with delight. I worry about the hard brick surface they are playing on. It is the age-old struggle between a grownup’s caution and a child’s reckless abandon. I am happy to be a part of it.
As to those of you who complain about feeling oppressed by the encroaching normalcy in our midst: I haven’t forgotten how to make exploding paper airplanes, so stop annoying me.