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The Kids Aren’t All Right: The Gay Marriage Movement and its Manipulation of Children and Youth [22 March, 2009]

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The Religious Right is notorious for its manipulation of children, especially in its anti-gay tirades.  The passage of Proposition 8 was prompted in part by the incitement of fear about what children might have to endure: the spectacle of gay sex, or worse, the spectacle of gay marriage.  In its “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons,” the Catholic Church is firm on the issue: “Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children, in the sense that their condition of dependency would be used to place them in an environment that is not conducive to their full human development.”

And then it goes on to pull in an authority only slightly less important than god: “This is gravely immoral and in open contradiction to the principle, recognized also in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that the best interests of the child, as the weaker and more vulnerable party, are to be the paramount consideration in every case.”

Okay, then.  Pull in the UN, no less, and the barriers facing queers advocating for the right to adopt and/or reproduce seem insurmountable.  And as most of us know, the charge of unsuitable parenting is the least damaging one made against us as queer parents.  Gay men in particular are regularly demonised as child rapists who can’t be trusted to be left alone with kids as schoolteachers, let alone raise them.

Until the gay marriage movement coalesced in earnest less than a decade ago, the issue of children in the queer community was focused on adoption rights.  Now, the movement has taken over and subsumed those issues into what it pompously refers to “full marriage equality.”  But the fact is that the right of queers to have and/or adopt children has nothing to do with marriage.  There’s a history that needs to be told, of how the queer reproduction/adoption issue was making its way through the court system separately from gay marriage until the former was hijacked by the latter.

But, for now, I want to consider the use of children and youth by the gay marriage movement to the point of exploitation.  A note for those who don’t know my politics on gay marriage: I’m against asserting the primacy of marriage in any way, gay or straight.  I don’t think that marriage should be the guarantor of essential benefits like health care.  I think the gay marriage movement, which only values people in “committed relationships” is a deeply conservative movement.  Worse, in arguing that gay marriage is necessary to ensure benefits like health care, the movement demonstrates its callousness towards the nearly 50 million who are without health care in this country, a lot of whom are straight and married.  Gay marriage, as it’s being fought now, only perpetuates economic inequality.  There are far bigger issues facing us today than the deprivation of “marriage rights.”

In that context: the media images of sad children and emotional teens talking about their and/or their gay parents’ right to marry are every bit as manipulative and dishonest as any right-wing propaganda about the dangers posed by queers to children.  Worse, these media images and messages conflate and confuse the issues that queers face on an everyday basis, like the threat of violence, and turn them into talking points in favour of gay marriage.

Take, for example, this video of seventeen-year-old James Neiley from Vermont, testifying about the need to legalise gay marriage.  He’s also a Board Representative of Outright, which describes itself as a “Queer Youth Center and State Advocacy Organization.” I do think it takes a certain amount of bravery to be out in public like this, at his age, but I don’t think that should distract us from the implications of his message.  I’ll first go through and dissect the problems with his speech - so numerous that I had to focus on just a few.  I’ll use those to discuss the problems that arise with using and manipulating children and youth to expand on “marriage equality.” Here’s Neiley on the connections between gay marriage and bullying of queer youth:

This debate isn’t just about marriage.  It is equally focused on the social issues that anti-hate crime laws and harassment laws work to prevent.  Without marriage equality the boys in the locker room...  who harassed me are encouraged to believe that my sexuality means there is something different, wrong, and lesser about me.  They know I don’t have the same rights as they do and they know that I can’t have a big tacky expensive wedding...  no matter how much I may want to.  Knowing this fuels their ideals and fuels the many forms of cruelty felt by LGBTQ youth throughout the state...When I came out I knew I wouldn’t be considered equal and I didn’t’ even consider myself to be equal.  How could I when I knew the best I could do in most states is get a civil union?  How am I supposed to overcome the ripping, nagging feeling that I am inferior?

Let’s not even go into the problems with hate crimes legislation, which I’ve written about in “Loving Hate: Why Hate Crimes Legislation is a Bad Idea.”  Let’s just consider Neiley’s direct assertion that “hate crimes” are caused by the lack of gay marriage.

To which we might respond: Really?  So this is what goes through the minds of bullies: “You’re a worthless piece of crap because you can’t get married and I can, so I’m going to harass and possibly beat you up.”  Sure.  How will Neiley and his media trainers respond to anti-queer violence after the recognition of same-sex marriage?  Will they decide it’s just bad karma?

The problem of school harassment and bullying is not going to go away with the advent of gay marriage; anyone who believes or asserts that is diminishing the issue of systemic violence in schools -- which can’t be solved with punitive hate crime laws or with marriage.  Violence in schools is also bound up in a range of issues which often have nothing to do with sexual orientation.  The recent push for queers-only high schools localises anti-gay bullying as the only problem that needs addressing, as if queer kids aren’t also marked by race, class status, skin colour, gender identitification, immigration status, and a host of other factors.  Kids are bullied and harassed for being too large, too skinny, too poor, too rich, for being immigrants, for not fitting in ...  the list goes on.  Neiley’s connection between the harassment he endured and gay marriage is callous, manipulative, and deceitful.

Neiley goes on to describe his future parenting style with his yet unborn children because, well, if you’re gay, it’s not enough to want to marry.  You have to prove your worth as a parent: “I would pack them a lunch and always put a cookie or a brownie in to brighten up their day.  I would drop them off to soccer practice or dance...I just want to be able to say, ‘I’m married,’ to my neighbours when they come over for a family barbecue.”

Gag.  I know that children and youth are inherently more conservative in their worldview than most adults; their vision of a stable world is influenced by the implicit and explicit messages that society sends them, and that world is always populated by two-parent households and stay-at-home parents who are at home morning, noon, and night to tend to their every need and wipe bums and noses whenever needed.  So I could just laugh off Neiley’s vivid evocation of a perfect childhood as yet another symptom of a widespread cultural delusion about what it takes to be happy in a family.

But, but, but...In the context of a public testimony about gay marriage, it’s necessary to consider the pernicious effects of Neiley’s words upon gay adults and gay children.  His words don’t appear in isolation -- they’re part of a widespread attempt by the gay marriage movement to paint gay families as not just normal but super-normal and beyond perfection.  In the process, the gay marriage movement has begun to use children and youth as mouthpieces for its conservative agenda.  Take, for instance, the recent anti-Prop-8-campaign, “Please Don’t Divorce Us,” where images of gun-wielding gay couples (look, they like to kill, just like us!) are interspersed with images of children seated between same-sex parents.  (Jessica Hoffman’s “Regarding That Video” is an excellent critique of the same, and needs to be read.)

What, I have to wonder, happens to the queer parents who don’t raise their children in such dementedly unrealistic ways?  And, as a community of sorts, shouldn’t we worry about the fact that young people are being persuaded that their gayness can only be made evident in partnerships like marriage? Neiley thinks that only marriage, not civil unions, will make him feel less inferior.  Rather than see his denunciation of civil unions as a reason to valorise marriage, we might consider how badly we are doing in our efforts to help queer youth with their sense of self-worth.  If we decide that their happiness is tied to gay marriage, aren’t we setting them up for exactly the kind of serial monogamy that leads people to desperately flit from relationship to relationship, incapable of being happy when they’re alone?  Is this what we want: young people whose self-worth is determined entirely by their romantic relationships?

If this were about gender and not sexuality, we’d be telling gay children and youth to explore all their options, see the world, take time to decide who they’d like to be, change their minds as often as they like.  Instead, youth like Neiley are becoming the way for the gay marriage movement to assert principles about the family that don’t look all that different from what the Religious Right paints as the ideal.  At the end, Neiley asserts that “that marriage is about love, not about gender roles.”  Yes, but “love” at what cost?

It’s both interesting and frightening to watch Neiley and other children and youth in the marriage movement.  It feels dismissive to write that they’re naive and clearly being trained by the older people in the marriage movement.  They may, in some instances, be coached to speak their lines.  Or they may, in other instances, be genuinely passionate and concerned about what they, often rightly, perceive as the state’s intervention into their families.  I’m less concerned about whether they have been directly taught to express these views or not than with the kinds of messages they’re sending out and the implications for those of us who don’t want to see marriage be the defining cause of the queer community, because the effects of the same are so devastating.  These children and youth are being taught to be manipulative and strategic to get to what they’re convinced is the ultimate goal of marriage.  They’re being taught that it’s okay to twist and turn everything that affects them as queers into a rationale for gay marriage, and that somehow the fight for gay marriage is a social justice cause that surmounts all the other myriad issues surrounding us, like massive and widespread economic inequality, or the devastating lack of health care for millions.

Frankly, I hate to think about what kind of people they’ll be ten years from now.  I suspect that Neiley, like so many of his generation, is incredibly media-savvy and has a sophisticated understanding of what kind of rhetoric might work best in this fight for “marriage equality.”  Which is to say: he’s learning to be a manipulative bullshitter and a pompous twit.

Originally published on The Bilerico Project, 22 March, 2009.  Read comments here.

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