Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Subverting Family Values: The Arkansas Anti-Gay Adoption Initiative in Retrospect

Yesterday, the organization Know Thy Neighbor put online (here) the names of 84,000 citizens of my home state who signed the petition to place on our last statewide ballot an initiated act to ban adoption by unmarried couples in Arkansas. I’ve blogged in the past (here) about a similar database that Know Thy Neighbor has placed online for Florida. Though some of those who sign these anti-gay petitions object when their names are made public, the names in these databases are a matter of public record.

I’ve also blogged about the anti-gay adoption initiative in Arkansas (here and here). As my postings on this initiative note, though it prohibits all unmarried couples in Arkansas from adopting, its target is clearly gay citizens. It was one among several such initiatives that the religious and political right floated in the last election to bring out the faithful and assure that they would vote “right.”

As my postings also note, the Arkansas initiative was particularly mean-spirited, because, in the hope of stirring animosity against gay citizens and bolstering Republican votes, it actually penalizes children who need foster and adoptive homes. We are a state in which there is a dearth of adoptive homes and a surplus of children needing such homes. The ultimate effect of the anti-gay adoption initiative in Arkansas is to make it harder for children to be placed in foster and adoptive homes.

With the pretense of promoting family values, the religious right is making it difficult for many children in Arkansas to have any experience of family at all in their formative years. It is also assaulting families that, for all kinds of reasons, are headed by two adults (of the opposite or same sex) who are not married. The law my state passed in the last election makes it impossible for a grandparent who is living with someone else without benefit of marriage to adopt his or her own grandchild.

These are points underscored in a press release that Know Thy Neighbor issued as it placed the names of petition signers online (here). Tom Lang of Know Thy Neighbor states,

“. . . [T]he Arkansas Family Council . . . used the welfare of children, the most vulnerable in our society, those in foster care and in need of adoption, in order to prove their claim that loving gay couples should not be adoptive or foster parents,” alleges Lang. “If you have a problem with me, if my sexual orientation is such a threat to you that you feel the need to take action against me, then come on, go after me. But don’t use children as fodder for your agenda. What sort of cowards would do that?”

And so I search the database this morning, and what do I find? A cousin of mine who is a Baptist minister signed the petition. So did his wife. So did the wife of that cousin’s brother, also a Baptist minister. My brother’s business partner (who is also his sister-in-law) signed the petition.

When members of one’s own family sign such a petition, it is personal. These family members obviously think that, should Steve and I wish to adopt a child, we would not be fit to parent that child—as they themselves are fit.

These family members clearly do not think that Steve and I are family—not in the same way in which they are family.

That message is not, of course, new to me. It’s one that has been consistent on the rare occasions in recent years when I have had to endure time with these family members who treat me as non-family, as a lesser human being.

The last two gatherings that have found us all together have been a wedding and a funeral—their mother’s remarriage following the death of my uncle, my father’s brother; and the funeral of my aunt, my father’s sister. At the wedding, someone called for a family photograph.

Steve and I were sitting in a church pew beside my aunt when this call went out. My cousins beckoned me, my aunt and uncle, and other cousins and their spouses to join them for the picture. Knowing how they feel about him (how could he not know? Treacly Southern hugs and beaming smiles can only go so far to disguise strong disdain), Steve remained seated as I joined the family.

At which point, my soft-spoken, gentle, never combative aunt, the matriarch of the family, whose voice would normally count, said, “I think Steve should be in the picture. He’s family.”

Everyone heard her, but it was as if the walls, and not a person, had spoken. My cousins went right on with the family photo session, with all spouses included except Steve. Certainly not Steve. This was a church, after all, a sanctuary for family values. It was a church pastored by one of the cousins, for Christ’s sake. A First Baptist Church.

How could a gay spouse be included in a picture like this, in a family such as this? We smiled for the camera, cooed at each other and said goodbye, and headed to our separate homes. What my cousins felt as the gathering ended, I can't say. I can certainly attest to what I felt, though: relief. Escape. Liberation. A determination never to spend any time with these family members in the future, if I can avoid it.

And now here are their names on this list, for God and all to see.

What does one do with such a testimony to the real family values of some family members? What does one do when one’s own commitment to family and to the way of Christian discipleship is completely at odds with the way in which other family members choose to interpret family and to read the bible?

Recent media articles are noting that increasing support for gay marriage around the U.S. will result in divisions in the churches. To those of us who are gay, this is not news at all.

We've been living with the divisions for some time now. We've been on the outside looking in—in church families and families of origin—for some years now. We live the divisions. They already run through our own families and our lives, through our very psyches.

And because of them, we often run the other way, when a “family” gathering is announced, or when someone invites us to be part of their church “family.” We've learned long ago that the word “family” can be used to mean the opposite of what that word means traditionally.

In traditional usage, the term “family” means inclusion, welcome, the place you know you will always be taken in no matter who you are or what you've done. In the mouths of many contemporary Christians, though, the word is a weapon, designed to hurt, to demean, to exclude family members who happen to be born gay or lesbian. Family is anything but the place where you know you'll always be taken in, if you're gay or lesbian.

Entire churches have constructed their identity around an ethic of exclusion of those of us who are gay, and they have done so while claiming to promote family values. While professing absolute fidelity to “traditional” notions of family, they have chipped away at the real, essential meaning of family in their own family circle and in their churches to such an extent that no one but a fool would imagine that these families and these churches are all about family.

No. They're about its opposite. They're about assuring that many people who need the solace and shelter of family will not find it when they need it. And to their shame, these promoters of family values have added to that list children without homes and families of their own, in the state of Arkansas.