We Never Talked about Gay Marriage

Two weeks ago I was invited to participate in a young man’s coming-of-age ritual, something his father had put together for him. It took place at a retreat center up in the Hill Country, and most of the invited men were fathers, including a father with his two sons, both of whom had gone through the ceremony a few years before. Before that night’s initiate arrived, the rest of us sat around waiting in a circle to check in. It was deep in the woods down by a dry creek bed. It was basically covenant group time—some sharing to open our hearts and create sacred space, to shake out our own stuff before the ritual, to be ready for the young man who we would welcome into adulthood.

Many of us shared stories of our fathers.

I told the story of the one time in my life I stood up to my father. Now my father was a mountain of a man. 6′ tall. 250 lbs. When he was in his 20s he rode bulls competitively.  It was 1984, I was a senior in high school, and I anticipated attending a university in Malibu, California — about an hour’s drive from our house. I was looking through the housing guide and Dad said, ” we can look into that next year. You’re going to live at home your freshman year and commute to school.”

“Dad,” I said. “I love you guys but I’m ready to not be here. I want to live away from home, not spend two hours on the road each day.”

“No, you won’t,” he replied, to which, I said, “one way or another, I will.”

He probably gave his standard response number 8, we had them all numbered, which was something like: “Well, I’d say your chances are somewhere between slim and none, and Slim’s just left town.” He thought the conversation was over — after all, I had never defied one of his rulings.

The week I turned 18, I brought home the papers: signed enlistment documents from the Air Force.  I braced myself for the worst beating of my life. Not that Dad had ever beaten me. I just couldn’t imagine where else this might go.

He looked at me and said absolutely nothing. I explained the papers, their finality, my decision, my genuine desire to serve and my even greater resolve to leave home. He said nothing, and then, was that a tear? Was this mountain of a Dad choking up? Before my mom erupted with her plans to have my enlistment annulled, as if you can annul an enlistment, my Dad said just one sentence:

“This is the proudest day of my life.”

Once again, we had one of our single line conversations.

Of course, this meant that not only was I going to spend the next four years in uniform instead of at college, but also that my plan of defiance failed.

My father and I disagreed on a lot of things. A woman’s right to reproductive freedom, for example, until the day he asked me a few probing questions shortly after my son was born:

“You know, I personally think abortion is wrong,” he said.

“It’s a personal choice that I could never make,” I replied, peppering my sentence with choice words.

“I also think it’s wrong to impose your beliefs on someone else,” he continued. He was wearing his American flag t-shirt with the “Try and Burn this One” logo.

“Yes, that would be un-American,” I said, “to impose your beliefs on someone else.”

“So, if I don’t want to impose my beliefs about abortion on someone else…”

I waited….

Does that make me “pro-choice?” he asked me.

Sure sounded like it, and the conversation was over.

We never talked about gay marriage, or equal-marriage rights, as I prefer calling it. He died before it became one of the significant civil rights issues of our time. I’ve wondered how that conversation would have gone.

Dad certainly had contact with people who were gay and lesbian. He worked with them, and saw many of them in Hollywood and Westwood Village where he worked for many years. It was the Southern California in the mid-1980s, when a lot of folks, at least there, were starting to come out of the closet. There was a lot of interesting clothing down there on Sunset Blvd.  Feather boas were apparently all the rage in some parts of L.A.

All of this certainly pushed against Dad’s very Mad Men male orientation. In many ways, my Dad was Don Draper. The past you never questioned. The secrets he held in his heart. The honorable way he lived his life to make up for stuff he thought he’d gotten wrong. The way good enough was never good enough. He was a mountain of a man because that’s who he chose to be.

Dad was also a true Christian, and as such he was reluctant to judge someone else, lest he, as Jesus said, be judged.

Many of my music teachers, growing up in California, were gay men and women, and I know he got concerned when I dove deep into music and the arts. He probably panicked when I joined the drama club, and our first outing was to see the remastered The Wizard of Oz — and then relieved when I didn’t have time for drama, choir, madrigal singers, brass choir, jazz, concert, and marching band — and had to drop drama.  But would his son become gay? Did the arts have anything to do with it? He didn’t understand these questions, or have answers.  I know he was relieved, again, when I finally started dating girls.

To my father’s credit he let me form mentoring friendships with those musicians and teachers—and I grew up without the same questions he had.  I realized at a young age that we were all dealing with the same questions of life and love. It was also the 80s, the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and I noticed how our society encouraged short-term and discouraged long-term relationships between same gender loving couples by denying them the opportunity to marry. My choir director and his partner, Mike and Michael, had been together for decades, had bought a house together, yet they couldn’t marry. This to me seemed wrong.

I once erroneously thought, years ago, that it would be fine if we could come up with some way to protect partnerships and unions between same gender loving couples and not call it marriage. I have evolved.  I’ve learned that there are hundreds of legal protections that come with marriage, and to rewrite our laws to create marriage for some people, and some other compatible thing for another group of people, is not only impractical, maybe impossible legally, it is unjust and unconstitutional. Just this week someone told me, for example, that even though their employer offers domestic partner benefits, that value of that benefit can be taxed as income.  I can’t imagine what that would feel like to be taxed for a benefit that others get for free. I can’t imagine what it would be like to face end of life decisions and not know if Cindy would be allowed at my side when I die, or make decisions for me when I can’t. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have any parental rights for my own child. These rights are nearly universal for married people state to state. Civil union is not marriage and it never will be. Equal protection under the law is equal protection.

There’s also a religious component to this debate. In my mind, marriage is a religious institution supported by the state, not a state institution supported by religion. As such, it is up to each church to determine which two people may be joined in matrimony. It is up to the state to support that institution with the broadest protections for two people entering into it.

Put in traditional religious language, marriage is the best thing invented for keeping us accountable to our faith in love. In marriage we learn to practice love, and in that we grow closer to the divine image. To deny 5-10 percent of the population the chance to be married is to deny them the most socially accepted moral framework for domestic partnership.

And so there it is: another sermon mash up: father’s day and equal marriage rights. It’s a mash up that makes sense for the work we have to do for justice.

I’ll never know how Dad would feel today, so I have to imagine the conversations. That is one way we honor our fathers who have died: their wisdom and influence continue on after they’re gone. I imagine that he and I would have some tentative discussions about what the Bible says about marriage. I might have asked him, “Well, what about Jacob, who married two of his first cousins, Rachel and Leah (who were also sisters), and had two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, apparently a sanctified acceped marriage practice of the day. This union was so blessed by God that the 12 children of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah became the 12 tribes of Israel.

Israel’s most revered king, David, had 14 wives and no good record of being satisfied. His unions were so blessed that from the house of David was said to come a messiah.

Solomon, the most wise king, had 700 wives — although this seems anything but wise to me.

And what about Biblical laws on marriage? In Deuteronomy it’s said that women could be kidnapped in war and forced into marriage, that unmarried women who are raped have to marry their attackers, and many other laws not suitable for an intergenerational service.

Marriage has changed and evolved over time to accommodate the social norms of a culture. It has evolved within the context of the Western world. Men can no longer beat their wives  and find protection under the law. People from different races can marry, and this in my lifetime. People can divorce freely and marry again.

It’s time for marriage to evolve once more, to bend again toward Love.

I doubt any of this would have settled the issue completely between my father and I, but I wish I could have those conversations. For you whose fathers are still alive, despite how complicated your relationships are, I encourage you to keep trying to know your fathers. You only get one, or if you’re lucky, two. The best way to honor our fathers is to know them.

The times have changed, and they will continue to do so. I know in a decade this great debate we’re having on marriage and parenting will be another completed chapter, like slavery, or sanitation, or sufferage, or inter-racial marriage. Not that any of those chapters are completely closed. Our world still struggles with child slavery, equal access to clean water, unjust voter ID laws, and racism. BUT… in each of those previous chapters it’s very clear than injustice is on the losing side of history. I know that the injustice of hetero-centric marriage will be the same. It already is in so many countries around the world and so many states in our country.

We are on the winning side of history.

And so on this Father’s Day, we honor all fathers (fathers who parent with a mother, fathers who parent with another father, fathers who parent alone, fathers who also mother, fathers who don’t know what they’re doing but do it with love—because ultimately that’s all a child really needs). You can worry about them, guide them, obsess over their schooling—but all they really need is your love.

I also honor today those childless men who stand up as mentors, as fathering figures in young men’s lives, to serve as good examples of manhood done right. Oh how our patriarchal society needs all men of good character to stand up, and just as often to sit down, to build a better and more fair world for our children— a world fathered and mothered in as many diverse ways as their are individual hearts.

On this father’s day, we honor the institution of fatherhood by lifting up the idea of equal marriage, for we all know that marriage is a proud and longstanding ideal in which good parenting can thrive as love grows.

May all who seek fatherhood find its value. May conversations with your fathers, and between fathers and their children, be rich. And for all who seek love, may it be found in your lives, supported as it should.

This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.