Monday, August 16, 2010

Thoughts on same-sex parents - from flirting with disaster to the kids being all right.

After Judge Vaugh Walker handed down his decision that Proposition 8 - the legislation that banned gay marriage in California - was unconstitutional on August 4th, proponents of the legislation promised an immediate appeal. The majority of the arguments being shouted back-and-forth for appeal of the unconstitutionality ruling are primarily based on the grounds of the potential "harm" inflicted from lifting the ban: the harm that would come to the institution of marriage, the harm to tradition and personal morals, and, seemingly, the harm that will be inflicted on the children raised by same-sex couples. Listening to NPR the day that the decision was handed down, I heard callers basing their argument that children would be "harmed" if they were raised by same-sex couples on historical evidence: children have traditionally been raised by one mother and one father, so now why would we want to go around messing with this already functional system?

If tradition dictates that children should be raised by a man and a woman, then over 12 million families in the US are guilty of breaking tradition by functioning as single parent households. If the definition of an "adequate parent" is based on the presence of a man and a woman to raise a child, then women whose spouses have left them, or men whose partners have passed away, or ambitious single women who choose to adopt a child without the financial or emotional support of a life partner do not qualify as "adequate parents." What about families that have several generations living under one roof, families in which aunts and grandparents and siblings share in the parenting responsibilities? Or families in which one of the parents falls ill and can no longer share in the child-rearing responsibilities? Attempting to define the basis for what makes an adequate parent is such an incredibly personal and unique assessment to make. It is so frustrating that more people aren't offended by all of this "tradition" rhetoric that organizations like the National Organization for Marriage are throwing around, especially given the profound ignorance of the feelings of the children involved in this whole discussion.

Seemingly released apropos recent research that supports this notion that children of same-sex couples "are well-adjusted," Lisa Cholodenko's newest dramedy The Kids Are All Right attempts to depict what The New York Times dubbed "a generous, nearly note-perfect portrait of a modern family." If one knows the premise of the film, the title effectively conveys the outcome of the storyline in a fairly clear manner - that children of gay parents, despite popular belief, might just turn out to be pretty okay. Is it possible, in the face of the beliefs of Proposition 8 supporters, that non-traditional family models can actually produce children that can function in a dominantly heteronormative society? Is this film trying to tell us that despite the "abnormal" behavior of their parents, the children of same-sex partners might just be able to function as the normal, well-adjusted human beings that we want to have in society? That, in fact, the kids of lesbian parents might just be totally all right?

Interestingly enough, some affirmation of this notion came in a recent lonely late night with my Netflix Watch Instantly queue, which lead me to revisit the fairly forgotten mid-90s film Flirting with Disaster, a movie that unexpectedly touches - albeit somewhat ironically - on the parenting questions being raised by Prop 8 supporters. This frenetic David O. Russell comedy stars Ben Stiller before he was a male model conducting walk-offs refereed by David Bowie and threatening that "nobody makes me bleed my own blood," and - brief sidebar - reminds the viewer why some audiences fell in love with him in the first place.

The film focuses on the journey of neurotic Mel Coplin (played by Stiller) and his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) as they travel the country with their newborn son attempting to find his birth parents with the incompetent-but-flirtatious adoption agency employee Tina (Téa Leoni). Mel's adoptive parents Ed and Pearl Coplin (played to bickering perfection by George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore) are deeply hurt and defensive of his decision, thinking Mel's search for his birth parents is a slight on their skills as parents. The first few scenes of the film set up the audience for the true reasons behind Mel's myriad neuroses and his quest to find out the reasons behind them - his adoptive father Ed is perplexingly afraid of the wheel of cheese sitting on the living room table (Pearl later calls him "food-phobic), and his mother won't let her son finish a sentence without a loud and dramatic interruption.

As the film goes on, Tina brings the young couple to two different people who turn out not to be his parents - the last of whom subsequently enables Mel to back a semi truck into a post office. At the police station, the three run into Nancy's old high school classmate Tony (Josh Brolin) who works in the alcohol, tobacco and firearms division with his partner, Paul (Richard Jenkins). The five of them all go out to an Italian restaurant, where it is slowly and subtly revealed that Paul and Tony are not just partners in the ATF division of the station - they are also romantic partners who are potentially considering adopting a child.

Tony and Paul serve as comic relief for the remainder of the film, if not just for their sexual orientation: Tony (who admits he's bisexual) attempts to seduce Nancy by licking her armpit, and Paul ends up running half naked through the desert after taking two hits of acid that Mel's vindictive and bitter younger brother meant for him. But, to my surprise for its serendipity, the last few lines of the film turn the joke away from the same-sex relationship and over onto the potential reality of any family situation - that even a child who is raised by a man and a woman in a typically "traditional" household has every chance of being messed up and poorly adjusted.

In the last scene of the film, the whole group gathers outside the jail from which Ed and Pearl Coplin have been bailed out after being caught with hundreds of tabs of acid in their trunk (I'm telling you, just see the movie - this matter of the plot is far too tangential to my main point). Outside the jail, Pearl turns to Ed and, motioning toward Tony and Paul, says "I think those two men are homosexuals." Ed responds that the two are thinking about adopting a child, and expresses how "sick" someone would have to be to do that. Pearl agrees with Ed, adding "can you imagine the neurosis that child will have to deal with?" After an entire movie about a man who can't name his child until he's met his birth parents, who (it's mentioned) has problems performing during oral sex, whose mother exposes her breasts to his wife, and who has awkward and illicit sexual interactions with someone who's effectively his psychiatrist, devoting the last three lines of a film to this ironic comment on the nature of familial relationships struck me as oddly timely to all the yelling and hand-wringing being done by outspoken Prop 8 supporters about the effects on the psyches of the children of gay and lesbian couples.

I cannot describe the surge of feelings brought forth in me that the last minute of a film made 15 years ago managed to pinpoint the exact fear expressed by supporters of traditional marriage values today in 2010. I smiled, feeling like I was a part of some in-joke, when the fear of potential mental harm to the child of a same-sex couple is spoken by a dysfunctional, heterosexual couple that produced an entirely neurotic and idiosyncratic offspring. Sure, one could argue the mere fact that Mel was adopted in some ways makes his family a non-traditional one, but keep in mind that I am going off of the assumption that a traditionally defined family (according to certain supporters of the ban on same-sex marriage) is one that is lead by a man and a woman. One could also argue that, seeing as he is married and has a child and job, Mel is an ipso facto well-adjusted member of society, but I would beg to differ that his issues far outweigh his surface normalcy.

I find that the testimony of the adopted children of same-sex couples is hardly given any credence in this whole discussion, even though they are seemingly the ones who are so negatively effected by their family situation - and who, not surprisingly, tend to express positive feelings about their home life. This issue is so extremely personal, and anyone who attempts to try and dictate what is best for any one child or any one family needs to step back and take a good look at what they are implicating about other non-traditional families in various alternative circumstances. Is it appropriate to turn to a strange family in a crowded restaurant and attempt to scold their child for being messy or consuming their food too loudly? Is it anyone's responsibility but the parent of a child - be it birth or adoptive - to decide what is best for their children? If anything, the laws against gay marriage are what most effect the psyche of a child of a same-sex couple - it can't be anything but devastating to grow up watching your parents be discriminated against for simply loving each other and making some attempt at normalcy.

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