Thursday, March 19, 2009

Making Solidarity with Gay Family Members: Robb Forman Dew's "The Family Heart"

I’ve just finished reading Robb Forman Dew’s The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out (NY: Ballantine, 1995). As with anything she writes, it is finely crafted, insightful, and humane. It’s also a multi-faceted story of one mother’s (and an entire family’s) struggle to cope with the announcement of a son that he is gay.

When their son Stephen told them he was gay, Robb Forman Dew and her husband Charles set forth on a resolute, and sometimes painful, journey. They committed themselves to understand their son’s life as a gay man—as completely as they could understand from the outside. Dew tells the story of that journey with searing honesty. She admits her initial clumsiness at dealing with her son, her growing awareness that, though she is a white affluent woman whose husband is a professor and who lives among some of the most highly educated people in the nation in New England, she was woefully ignorant about what it means to live as a gay or lesbian person in America today.

The memoir chronicles Dew’s attempt to educate herself, to understand, to learn ways of coping with and challenging the pervasive homophobia of which she became aware as she began to struggle to see life through her son Stephen’s eyes. Dew’s journey became a journey of solidarity: not one of mere affirmation from a distance, of “acceptance” that keeps a despised object at arm’s length, of self-congratulatory “tolerance” that, in the very act of patting oneself on the back for one's tolerance, absolves one of any struggle to stand in solidarity with the one whom one “supports.” When Dew’s eyes were opened regarding the powerful mechanisms by which gay and lesbian Americans are demeaned and discriminated against daily in our culture, she became a courageous activist for gay rights. She stood with her son and took arrows herself, as she called on groups of which she was a part, and in which her voice might make a difference, to stop oppressing.

One aspect of Dew’s book that particularly grabs my attention is its masterful depiction of the insidious, omnipresent homophobia that lingers in our society even among those who think of themselves as the most enlightened and educated members of our society—the cultural arbiters for whom prejudice is somebody else's problem. Dew describes in careful detail her attempt and her husband’s to combat outright, unabashed homophobic discrimination in a leading New England ivy-league university, a supposed bastion of tolerance and high culture, as well as in an elite boarding school.

Dew incises in sharp, unsparing prose her conversations with members of her community—white, Anglo, highly educated—who shocked her when they let their guard down and told her how they really felt about gay human beings, and what they really believed about the lives and nature of those who are gay. The same people who (rightly) decry the racist balderdash of many of us in the American South, and who (rightly) note the ignorance from which Southern racism proceeds . . . but who, if Dew’s account is correct, seem unable to recognize that the dynamics they are decrying in others trouble their own lives in a way they do not wish to understand.

As Dew notes, the experience of someone making solidarity with those who are gay—the experience of someone who commits herself to struggle against oppression with those who are gay—is not uniform. Though some highly placed and purportedly well-educated members of her New England community shocked her by their commitment to ignorance and oppression, many others heartened her by their willingness to stand in solidarity with her. And these included not merely those one would have predicted as allies—members of her husband’s university community, for instance—but people one might have expected not to sympathize and understand, those scorned by the highly educated members of her community as uneducated and common.

I highly recommend Robb Forman Dew’s book. As she herself notes, the book does not provide much insight into what it means to come out from the viewpoint of the person declaring herself or himself to be gay. But it does provide an important and compelling description of the dynamics through which family members in solidarity with a gay sibling or parent struggle to understand and support. And it provides a crucially important snapshot of hidden, lethal, and, one suspects, continuing homophobia among an elite sector of American society with strong political and cultural influence, whose historic commitment to education and social justice stands in shameful contrast to its sometimes lukewarm commitment to gay rights at this point in American history.