“You know, only a boy and girl can get married”.
I glanced at my wife in the passenger seat, before making eye contact with my five-year-old son in the rear-view mirror.
“Oh, really?” I replied, as I drove us home from pre-school pick-up. “Who told you that?”
“Me. Me, myself. No one else”.
“Okay. So, why do you think that?” I asked.
“Because only a boy and girl can get married. Not a boy and boy and not a girl and a girl. Only a boy and girl can get rings and be married. Otherwise, it’s against the rules and the president says so, and if you don’t listen to the rules the judge will be mad and you’ll be in trouble and the president will say go to jail”.
I looked over at my wife and sighed. I knew neither one of us believed that he had come to this conclusion by himself and it wasn’t the first time he tested out statements he knew we did not agree with. He knew we were married and had even been part of our wedding ceremony two and a half years ago.
My wife spoke up. “What is Mama? A girl or a boy?”
“A girl,” he replied.
“And what is Baba? A girl or a boy?”
“A girl,” he answered.
“Are we married? Do we have rings?”
“Do you think we should be in trouble?”
“Okay, then” I added. “So you see that it’s alright for a girl to marry a girl and for a boy to marry a boy. What matters is that they love each other and all love is good love. We would never want to tell you, your sister or anyone else that they couldn’t love the person they did or that they couldn’t be together with the person they love. Does that make sense?”
“Good” my wife replied. “And know that our president made this a law, that anyone who loves each other can get married, which is a very important and very good thing.”
“You good?” I asked.
“Yes” he replied and began a new conversation about the Christmas lights strung along the houses we passed as we turned into our neighborhood.
Although he claimed to come to this conclusion on his own, I very much doubted that was true. While only just five years old, I know there’s been much discussion amongst his four and five-year old preschool peers over the past six months, especially as the vitriol that surrounded the 2016 presidential election seeped into their young subconscious.
At the height of the election, my son informed the dinner table one night that “Hillary Clinton was bad and should be put in jail”. I watched as my wife choked on her bite and abruptly excused herself. “You need to take this one,” she said to me, flushed, as she walked into the next room for air.
There was no mistaking who our house was (to use the preschool method of voting) “chanting” for. Our fridge was covered in “HRC” magnets and our “Clinton/Kaine” sign was the first in the neighborhood to be staked, out early and proud. Our family backpack was adorned with a large “H” button, which I will cowardly admit made me nervous, walking around street festivals, amusement parks and other public places in our rural, central Pennsylvania town.
As the fall months progressed, our son would cuddle with us on the couch in the dawn of early morning, watching MSNBC and pointing out politicians, proclaiming his support (Clinton) and his disdain (Trump). We consciously avoided winding him up into an “us vs. them” frenzy, instead calmly explaining WHY we were “chanting” for Hillary, why we supported her and why we opposed her opponent (though I will say my wife was a much more, ahem, “passionate” person than I when it came to this matter).
So when he came home that night shouting “Hillary the Criminal!,” we knew it was him testing his own boundaries at home and the influence of his classmates who were just as likely watching Sean Hannity as we were Rachel Maddow.
The morning after the election, the single, most heartbreaking moment was when I had to tell him that Trump won. After months of explaining what Clinton stood for and why she was good for our country — and conversely, what Trump stood for and why that would be a problem, especially for families like ours and those of our diverse group of friends — I had to look into his wide, innocent eyes and tell him that as far as he could understand, “the bad guy won”.
Since then, we’ve largely backed off politics at home. After that initial first week of mourning, lamenting and Facebook posting, life went on. I tried to bury my anxiety that for the first time ever, I could not tell my wife, my young son and toddler daughter that everything would be okay. That we would be okay. I truly did not know.
Instead, I tried to keep an open, optimistic mind. What was done was done and we needed to “give the guy a chance”. I tried to broaden my perspective, reading articles to help me empathetically imagine what Republicans may have felt the past near decade. Maybe the next four years wouldn’t be as catastrophic as we and our fellow Democrats feared. Maybe Trump’s rancid rhetoric that saturated our feeds for the past year and half was just egomaniacal boasting, smoke and mirrors stemming from immaturity, not real hatred. That’s what I had hoped.
Earlier that same day my son declared his new stance on same-sex marriage, I read an article in the Washington Post about Ken Blackwell, President-elect Trump’s pick to head our U.S. domestic policy.
Blackwell, like Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, has made clear and consistent anti-LGBT statements for years and both men have staunchly and repeatedly supported a variety of discriminatory laws and policies against the LGBT community, including as highlighted in the Washington Post article, “gay conversion therapy”.
Conversion therapy, or “reparative therapy” according the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is defined as “a range of dangerous and discredited practices that falsely claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression”. Despite its rejection by every mainstream medical and mental health organization for decades, the practice still exists and can range from an array of psychological, emotional and physical abuse techniques including “induced-vomiting and minor electric shock”. Young people exposed to this treatment are especially vulnerable, and conversion therapy can lead to depression, anxiety, drug use, homelessness, and suicide.
Blackwell has gone on record saying “homosexuality is a sin, and gay people, just like petty thieves and fire-setters, can be rehabilitated…and I think you make good choices and bad choices in terms of lifestyle. Our expectation is that one’s genetic makeup might make one more inclined to be an arsonist or might make one more inclined to be a kleptomaniac. Do I think they can be changed? Yes.”
As I drove my family home that night, listening to my wife reassure my young son that we, as a same-sex couple raising children in a rural, conservative local landscape, are safe and validated and protected by our government and our laws, my heart sank.
I thought about that article and imagined my own children being subject to ridicule and persecution in the halls of their school, bullied for their family’s make-up. I thought about my own fortunate upbringing, that despite being raised in a Catholic and somewhat conservative household, that I was never cast away or forced to change and instead my partner and children were lovingly welcomed and embraced by those around us. I thought about my young son and daughter, should they grow up to be gay like me, what kind of institutionalized punishment might await them.
The fear is quickly creeping back in and not just for me and my family.
Over the past week, several anti-Semitic acts of vandalism have occurred across the college campus where we work. Every night the news highlights another selection for Trump’s new team, one after another touting records that directly endanger African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, the rights of women and members of the LGBT community. Since November, a surge of overtly hate-fueled acts have occurred across the country, ranging in ethnic and religious slurs to burning of flags to an effigy of a hanging. I even had a friend tell me her relative was assaulted coming out of a bar, chased and severely beaten in front of his wife, after being told “go back to your country” simply because his attackers at first glance perceived him to “be different”. I’ve seen his swollen hospital photo myself.
So what do I say now? What do I tell my children looking into the very near future?
What do my closest friends tell their children, some of whom are already growing up with the critically dangerous reality of being black men in America?
As I’ve told well-intentioned friends and colleagues who have assured me that “everything will be alright” despite all the racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynistic writing on the wall – you can say that because you haven’t had to look your child in the eye and lie to them about the future of their safety and security.
You have never feared being pulled over by a police officer, even though you may have done nothing wrong. You have never worried about losing your home or your job for no other reason than because of who you love. You don’t fear the fallout from outwardly expressing your religion or spirituality. You have never feared verbal or violent attacks because you held your spouse’s hand in public or simply, because you look or sound “different”. You have never stood before a judge whose sole decision it was whether to grant you parental rights over your child – the same child whose NICU incubator you anxiously sat watch over for weeks — just because you are the non-birth mother in a same-sex relationship. No case worker, no opening statement. Just a judge who held your future in their discretionary hands. You have never had so many of your rights, so much of your life, be at the mercy of others.
You may lie awake at night worrying about finances, your job, your home, the health and happiness of those you love. But you have never laid awake, gripped by the fear that your life and liberty might suddenly disappear in the morning. That hateful bricks might crash through your window. That swastikas might be painted on your car while you grocery shopped. That you may leave a restaurant and be chased and beaten by just anyone who decided you don’t look right to them. That everywhere you turn, our government is affirming discrimination, prejudice and hate.
For today, I can tell my son that we are okay. For the next 43 days, I can tell him that we are protected. That his family is valid and safe.
But after that point, no one knows.