Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gay Parenting and the Novelty of Cell Phones: A Response to Justice Alito from an African-American Perspective

In a new Religion Dispatches essay, Sikivu Hutchinson makes a point I've also been pondering in light of Justice Alito's statement last week that same-sex marriage is as novel as cell phones and the internet: Hutchinson notes that, out of economic necessity and in response to situations of intolerable stress created by racial oppression, families of color have always had to develop models that transcend the nuclear model in order to rear children. As he notes, 

Historically, families of color have always been diverse by culture, economic necessity, and social obligation. Extended African American family networks of adult caregivers, gay and straight, related and un-related, have always contributed to childrearing. When racist/sexist criminal sentencing policies, joblessness and inequitable access to housing loosened or precluded “traditional” family ties, multi-generational family networks were the glue.

Note the phrase "gay and straight" as Hutchinson describes the kind of extended family networks on which African Americans have historically had to rely out of necessity, in order to see that children get provided for and nurtured. African-American extended families have always included gay family members, and often the partners of those family members, assisting in the task of rearing children. 

As bell hooks and Cornel West note in their book Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1991), black communities and black families have always included gay and lesbian individuals, and the expectation that these communities isolate and denigrate their LGBT members is a fairly recent one, one driven by divisive political movements hoping to pit people of color against gay people in many parts of the world. 

It's not in the least new for gay people to pick up the pieces in extended families, to rear children whose heterosexual parents have died or vanished. It's not at all novel for gay people and their significant others to assume the responsibility of raising children in both black and white extended families when other family members are unable or unwilling to care for these children. I know a nun who grew up in a hardbitten section of the Missouri Ozarks, who was raised by her uncle and his gay partner, and who is willing to tell anyone that all she knows about love and fidelity, she began to learn as a little girl in her uncle's household.

And so I wonder what Justice Alito can possibly mean when he surmises that gay marriage and gay parenting are so new, we know next to nothing about them. If he means that providing an official stamp of approval to gay families, permitting gay couples legal recognition that allows them to enjoy the rights and privileges of heterosexual parents, is relatively novel, then I can see his point.

But if he means that we have no experience with or history of same-sex couples raising children, nothing to measure the effects of same-sex parenting by, then he's badly informed about the history of family life in many cultures of the world, the United States included. Though, as Hutchinson notes, many of us have little inkling of how families of color have dealt with the challenges of raising children in circumstances of economic and social duress for a long time now, since the media collude in making us imagine that white, middle-class, nuclear families are Family Writ Large . . . .

Maybe Justice Alito needs to get out and about more, as he tries to figure out what goes on and has long gone in in family arrangements beyond his insulated cultural bubble. He might learn that some versions of the cell phone have been around far longer than he ever dreamed.

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