Tuesday, January 29, 2008

GLBT equality, childlessness, and eldercare


Life isn’t fair, Donald Trump once said, and we can certainly run around in circles over the equality paradigm.

Equality is one thing, and “right and wrong” is another. Sometimes I feel that we all need to sit through freshman Philosophy 101 again. Because in our culture these days, in talking about marriage and parents (straight or gay) we mix a lot of things up.

The commonly accepted standard of behavior has been “personal responsibility.” Most of all, if you create a baby (or adopt one) then you raise it and make him or her your top priority, hopefully within the support structure of a lifetime monogamous “marriage.”

It’s the “If…” part that matters. (That was the title of a 1969 British film on a boarding school rebellion.) Because in practice, family responsibility comes about for a lot of people without their ever having intercourse. In our culture, and even more so in third world cultures, people wind up with responsibility for raising siblings or OPC (“other people’s children”) all the time. Responsibility for blood relatives pre-exists and sometimes it’s actually easier to carry out once you have your own children. This is the chicken-v-egg problem. Maybe family responsibility generates babies. There are plenty of movies about this experience (“Raising Helen”, “Saving Sarah Cain”). The latest chapter of this problem is the explosion of need for eldercare from adult children, many of whom do not have their own children.

Furthermore, during the past few years, there has been a continuous concert of calls for adoptive and foster parents – even singles (maybe GLBT people in many states) – and for people to act as mentors and become teachers, even in retirement. Other people’s children, again.

When I was substitute teaching, I was criticized severely a couple of times for not taking charge as an “authority figure.” Now, there were situations where I don’t believe that authoritarian command and control was the right thing for the kids (I think they serve school administrators instead). Once, I was asked to get into swimming trunks and into a pool in front of disabled kids. I declined. It seemed to me that they had a model of “equality” in mind – an elderly man that they suspected was gay. They would “encourage” me to pretend that I was equal so other people could feel good about themselves. That includes the administrators, and maybe some of the kids. A couple of other job interviews with various marketing schemes raised the same issue. Pretend the feel-good stuff. Deny what is going on. Always be politically correct. No thank you.

The federal government, as do most states, declare in their laws that I am less than an equal citizen. The federal government says, in a 1993 statute, that if I were serving in the military and “told” anyone, I would threaten the sense of dignity of other people in a situation of mandatory forced intimacy. I know that the law is worded to apply to the Armed Forces only, but the reasoning is malignant. It got me thrown out of William and Mary in 1961 before I even served in the military myself. As a teacher, how could I expect underprivileged kids to respect me as an “authority figure” when the federal government baldly says I am less than equal to others? More mature kids don’t really need that kind of a figure and do better without one.

But sometimes people come back with a retort like this: if I say publicly that I savor the “submission” in my sexuality (I don’t want to be graphic here), that is a way of saying publicly that I am not worthy of respect. We see this kind of thinking as a reaction to self-defaming postings on the Internet common as social protests by teenagers. If I respected myself, so they saying goes, I would want to continue myself with children and lineage.

That sounds a lot like old-fashioned religious thinking, both in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam. Vatican pronouncements about abstinence, marriage, openness to procreation, and homosexuality as an "objective disorder" all relate to this kind of thinking. Another aspect of this view is "purification": the idea that, in a world of inequality and deprivation, resources can be expropriated and given to those who will take the responsibility to continue the family in socially approved marriage, with all the emotional trappings. I certainly benefited from the emotional empathy of parents and others as I grew up, so I owe this back to other people. One way to “pay this back” is to continue the chain of responsibility and marry and have children. Many parents assume that their children owe them this “proof of love” and empathy by giving them grandchildren, and part of that "proof" is the willingness to "fight" preferentially for one's own family members. That belief, of automatically generated loyalty, actually may contribute to the stability of their marriage, as well as a belief that their adult children will remain loyal to family and do their fair share of caring for needy family members. This follows the model known in the animal world (some birds, wolves) where some members do not reproduce but remain subordinate in meeting the needs of those pack or “family” members that do. Never mind, though, that human beings have an artistic or expressive culture that lives on for generations regardless of individual biological reproduction. For someone like me, that's a good thing, being driven away into "urban exile" almost four decades ago by a culture that said someone like me wasn't welcome around real families with children -- and now the tables seem to be turning because of the degree of need.

That gets to be the paradigm of proper moral behavior in many cultures. It gets perceived as “public morality.” Modern individualism (“personal autonomy” or “individual sovereignty”) respects the rights of individuals to make their own reproductive decisions without being shoved into second class status, as long as they take responsibility for the children that they have. There is a bit of a cultural conflict here.

The needs for eldercare, and the likelihood that some states will feel financial pressure to start enforcing filial responsibility laws on adult children, can challenge the thinking that has enabled reproductive freedom. That thinking is based on “personal responsibility” and does not clearly recognize a moral obligation to prioritize support for the needy within families, a responsibility that may exist for everyone regardless of personal choices. This responsibility is often more naturally taken by people who did have children. So we have a bit of a conundrum. The idea that families could generate their own "morality driven" demands for biological loyalty has, partly because of the offense it creates to many "different" people, gradually been replaced by debates on how global resources and hardships should be shared, and sometimes as to how wealth should be redistributed -- or even a reflection back to the more communal kind of self-perception that families imagine themselves to represent in the first place.

A good book to look at, almost forgotten now, is Elinor Burkett's "The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless," The Free Press, 2000. I recall back in the 90s that radio talk show host Victoria Jones ("The British Lady") expressed incredulity when conservatives came on to her program and expressed more concerns about childlessness.

1 comment:

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