Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Details" has article on dads with gay offspring (sons): my "moral" retrospect

The April 2008 issue of Details has a story on p 112, “Would you really be Okay with a Gay Kid?” by David Hochman. It’s online here.
That’s the issue with Ryan Seacrest on front. You know, Ryan the guy whose career is to develop pop stars, just starting with American Idol. (He says that on ABC Nightline.) Sorry, I missed the earlier Details issue with clean-cut ("Troy Bolton") Zac Efron – who, until he turned 20, was (corresponding to Daniel Radcliffe in Britain) apparently America’s wealthiest teen.

In 1998, a British writer approached me with the possibility of an article on gays in the military in Details. It didn’t go through, because, as she said, Details had now become too much of a “hetero” magazine. Nevertheless, look at all the models – they look like they came off the disco floor at the Town DC or the Saloon in Minneapolis. So, it’s interesting to see Details have a piece about male gay teens.

The Details article points out a basic hypocrisy and double-standard: society expects people to be open and accepting about how other people are, but it seems no “dad” wants this for “his” boy. Ah ha.

I do recall the extreme pressure I felt, especially during grade school and middle school years, to learn to do “manly” things. I had my interests in bookishness and piano, but I felt the constant pressure to conform to the expectations of others to perform as a man. This came from both parents and peers, and, before high school (when things got much “better”), teachers.

Most of us know the parameters of this. One of the most traumatic days happened at around age 9 or so when I had to play “football.” I faced constant pressure from my father about the way I performed certain manual tasks, about the importance of manual labor. It seems that many gay teens experience the "moral pressure" that will not permit them to live their own lives and find a legitimate place in the world (even as future adults) without meeting prerequisite demands driven by the familial needs of others ("mandatory family responsibility").

Yes, I get it, and maybe most visitors do at this point. All of this pressure seemed to have a moral basis. But the “moral” thinking of not just my parents but of the whole generation they came from itself is bifurcated.

On one level, I get the idea that it was important for me to learn to “carry my weight” and "pay my dues" if I was going to grow up to be an adult whose choices were respected. Many kids experience the other side of this: they wonder why they have to pass Algebra I when they think they know what they want. I wondered why I was being forced to do these manual things that really didn’t matter, just to prove that I could do them if I had to. I resented it. But today, it makes a certain moral sense. Once I was out in the adult world and working, I encountered lots of areas, in the workplace and in society in general, where people were concerned about who performed, who could be counted on in a pinch when hardship loomed, who had really earned what he had. These concerns came from both the far right and far left.

Yes, it is a “moral” issue how well we individually share the burdens of the world around us. When I came of age, this concern was particularly expressed in the controversy over the Vietnam era draft, student deferment, and the nasty idea that some people were less “essential” and could be used as cannon fodder to make things better for others. As a moral concern, all of this became very real to me, and it remains so today. We do hear this talked about today in discussions about the “backdoor draft” in Iraq, and discussions about national service. And the media is constantly presenting us with the real sacrifices people have to make to care for disabled and elderly parents, and reinforces the idea of sharing burdens as a moral issue. Yet, our politicians and even our pastors don’t really talk about morality this way. They used to, back in the 50s and early 60s when I would come of age. But they don’t today, and I think this is very perplexing. No politician can run on talking about personal morality this way (not even the Republicans).

But, as I said, this whole issue of growing up to carry your weight bifurcates. Often, although not always, parents perceive the future biological loyalty of their children, even as adults, as part of the “bargain” of an active, stable monogamous marriage. They have been raised to believe that lineage is essentially a “birthright” that becomes available with marriage. (That’s the point of the 1955 classic film and “best picture” “Marty.”) Obviously, my father, particularly, as well as teachers, were concerned that I would not grow up to be a competent or "competitive" potential husband and father. (Intensifying this was the fact that I was an only child.) I will use a bit of “inductive reasoning” from my own experience. A gay child, especially a son, will not be able to provide this kind of biologically continuity (unless he forces himself to anyway, or develops some “alternative strategy”). And it gets to be more than just the issue of grandchildren – because all societies have always had a significant number of individuals (even men) who did not reproduce. (That’s true in many mammalian communities.) But the issue gets beyond that of reproduction itself. It has to do with the “emotional solidarity” (soap opera style, with all that pampering) of a blood and extended family. The visibility of gays, and the idea that male homosexuality is totally socially acceptable, comports with “utilitarianism,” objectivism and radical individualism, which leads to the logical consequence that, even within a family, individuals should fend for themselves and become less dependent on the emotional complementarity of family life. It should come as no surprise that this is very threatening to many people. There’s even another question: if people become devalued because of their own lack of self-sufficiency (as often expected by the modern world), then shouldn’t someone be devalued if he doesn’t want to reproduce? Existentialism gets dangerous here --- but existentialism goes beyond reason, they say. There’s also the point that many of the “threats” to our way of life could force us to become more interdependent again, and make the emotional life of the family paramount again.

In many families, parents make enormous changes within themselves to raise kids, and understandably they think that the “socialization” they undergo (as pass on to their kids through chores and media-free family rituals) should pass on to their kids. To such parents, the integrity and permanence of this socializing process is as morally compelling as the more obvious “moral” problems where people as individuals don’t take responsibility for their own actions.

So, where does this leave us? Different strokes for different folks? Well, that’s an underlying principle of individualism, and its pretty effective in helping break up old-fashioned power structures and patterns of institutionalized discrimination. Within families, however, it means many people are much more left to themselves, and in such a world, where “the family for its own sake” is less valuable emotionally, more (though my no means all) marriages will fail, and certain kinds of individuals can get set adrift – cheated (they feel) and abandoned, they become today’s criminals.

Biology leaves us with a conundrum. It’s a fact – even within any family, people are born “wired” differently. Some are more sociable than others. Some are extroverted, fewer are introverted. Some are independent and “content oriented” and depend less on external socialization. That’s biological reality, and it is true of higher mammals in general. Morality is constructed out of social, political, and sometimes religious concepts. Personal sovereignty and personal responsibility are major precepts in today’s society. That is hard on some people. For those who are “wired differently” (the “nature v. nurture” problem) society generally intervenes when the wiring leads to harmful behavior (like substance abuse). When the wiring simply leads to emotional distance and diffidence and disinclination to make emotional commitments in a conventional manner, society has much less warrant to intervene, perhaps no warrant. That does not sit well with many people and it makes things tougher for some families. But that seems to be how it is.

Sometimes one has to be blunt. The historical prohibition against (particularly male) homosexuality seems to have developed, with the aid of religion, as a socially convenient (if intellectually less than honest or rational) way to encourage "waverers" or less competitive men to procreate or (in sharing family responsibility) support those who do procreate without disrupting the family "emotional unit cohesion" that has always been thought necessary. Over about four decades this perspective has changed, making today's previously unforseeable debates on gay marriage, gay adoption and gays in the military (all relevant to equal participation in meeting common needs) interesting and relevant, while leaving more individuals on their own in a world of asymmetric dangers (including STD's) and opportunities.

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