Friday, July 5, 2013

The Portman and Obama Father-Son Relationships -- Something sons of lesbian couples will never have

Perhaps the silliest and most irritating cases of people "evolving" on same-sex marriage would be Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and President Barack Obama.

In the case of Rob Portman, it's annoying because his gay son was able to score this huge victory for the same-sex marriage cause by pulling at the heartstrings of his dear old dad. If same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land and same-sex parenting receives full-throttle support from all fifty states, hundreds of thousands of boys raised in lesbian homes will never have such leverage. They won't have powerful dads in Congress. They won't have dads at all. Whatever causes matter to them -- like, perhaps, children's rights -- they will have to fight without the emotional force of a dad saying, "good showing, junior!"


I suppose that future boys raised by lesbians can go the route of Zach Wahls and shuttle from city to city asking, "what makes a family?" to audiences that have already been prepped to say on cue, "whatever you want it to be!" Since such boys will have no dads except strangers in sperm banks whose fathering consisted of masturbating in a private porn viewing room for a few hundred bucks, they can get lots of traction by the awkwardness and taboos surrounding themselves, knowing that even the most liberal audiences know not to ask too many questions about where half their genetic material came from.

But history tells us that there can only be so many Zach Wahlses. Once he sweeps through town with his liberal lesbian-cheering entourage the next boy-raised-by-lesbians will find the crowd thinning out. The novelty wears off and people's tastes will inevitably wander back to the archetypes they know already: Oedipus and Laius, Jacob and Joseph, Daedalus and Icarus. While the picture of Zach with his two moms is charming, it will never carry the same cultural weight with people as the symbolic impact of a United States Senator discussing his devotion to his son. Father-son relationships, going all the way back to Adam and his two sons in Genesis, carry so much significance and cultural gravitas. To make a public display, like Cato's tears, over the relation of a powerful man to his son, is effective because it plugs into thousands of years of history. Hence it's ironic that the public impact of Rob Portman's decision -- to endorse future homes without fathers in them -- negates the very basis on which his decision was made.

Rob Portman decided to make himself and all he represents irrelevant, or at least inaccessible, to future 'queers' who won't be as lucky as his son -- they'll be like me, queers with nothing but moms around, annoying everyone and living on the fringes of society. (If only I'd learned to tie a slip knot and passed the Cub Scouts and turned out heterosexual, maybe I could have beaten Zach Wahls to the lecture circuit!)

Which brings me to the second most annoying turnaround in the "I've evolved on gay marriage" game. Barack Obama made his career on a book named after the highly flawed and almost totally absent Kenyan father he barely knew.

Without this famous book twenty years ago, nobody would have noticed the floppy-eared, fast-talking lawyer from an Ivy League school -- those are a dime a dozen. The journey of a young man seeking to rebuild the burnt bridges to his ancestral past, through his father's line, captivated enough people to catapult Obama on a path that led eventually to the presidency.

The lesson Obama could take from his own life is that a boy's connections to his father, no matter how strained, are powerful and important. On such narratives the zeitgeist can shift, minds can be changed, and archetypes can be born. Love him, hate him, condemn him, forgive him, run away from him, search for him in the shadows he's run away to -- your father is your father.

And yet, President Obama, by changing your mind on same-sex marriage, you just told hundreds of thousands of boys in the future, "you don't get to have what I have. Tough luck."

Read your own darned book, carefully, and tell that to my face, Mr. President.

Though Mom was a lesbian, I was lucky not to have lost all ties to my father. To be honest as a kid, he was absent in my life. My mother spoke ill of him and I believed everything she said; her lesbian partner cast him in unflattering terms as well. But that was par for the course since both of them had rather harsh things to say about men, including me. They weren't fans of the masculine sex.

Eight years after my mother died, after barely having any contact with me, my dad showed up in the Bronx. I was in Montefiore Hospital, having just had a tumor removed. A gay man dying of AIDS had sold my possessions and cleared them out of the apartment where I was living. A string of boyfriends had dumped me. It was a cold January night. The nurses had miscalculated the anesthesia, and I woke up one third of the way through the surgery; I was awake and without painkillers for most of the procedure as my flesh was cut, a tumor pulled out, and my skin sutured again.

I thought of Mom and her lover. I thought of the whole world out there -- the vast universe to which I'd always sensed I was a foreigner. Why go back to the office? Why go back to my messy one-bedroom just off the Grand Concourse with missing furniture and the remnants of a dying gay roommate scattered about? Why live anymore?

My dad appeared over me, as if stepping out of my dreams. He reached out and held my hand. I said nothing and looked away. It was so painful to allow myself to see him as my dad, after having been cut off for him so many years. But I called him, "Dad." He pushed me in a wheelchair out of Montefiore, helped me into a cab, and walked me to my fifth-floor apartment, where he took care of me for a week.

Having a dad saved me. How could I ever support same-sex marriage, knowing that to do so, I would deny future boys raised by lesbians that eleventh-hour grace? I couldn't. Boys need fathers. Fathers need to be there. I wish Rob Portman and Barack Obama would look at their own lives and realize that.