Monday, September 22, 2008

Gays and eldercare responsibilities: a law professor makes a bald speculation in a book


Yesterday, on the books blog (check my Profile and the archives), I reviewed a book by American University Washington College of Law professor Nancy D. Polikoff. The title “Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law” sounds self-explanatory, and indeed answers the “marriage culture” issue in a manner similar to a GLIL editorial called “License Expired” in 1995.

But I wanted to focus on one naked speculation that took me back. Yes, I know where she is coming from, but I want to expand that further, beyond the book review. The sentence occurs on p. 151, when she is talking about eligibility for benefits for supporting other dependents outside of legally recognized marriage. She writes, “A gay man with no partner may be the one among his adult siblings best suited to move in with, support, and care for an aging parent or grandparent.” (Emphasis is mine.) My goodness, including grandparents is a bit gratuitous, isn’t it? What came to mind immediately is “family slave” situation with a young heterosexual woman (Renee Zellweger) in Carl Franklin’s 1998 movie “One True Thing” (novel by Anna Quindlen) where she gives up a relationship and career to take care of her cancer-stricken mother (Meryl Streep), when her father (William Hurt) singles her out for the sacrifice. I’m also reminded of a couple of episodes in TheWB’s “Seventh Heaven” where young medical intern Matt (Barry Watson) is criticized for ignoring his “family” (younger siblings) when he is too busy with medicine.

Yes, the negative buzzwords and interpretations (for Polikoff’s hypothesis) float around in the head. “Second class citizen” is the obvious term. Someone’s life is to be expropriated for another’s benefit because it is not as “worthy” as the lives of the siblings, not because of “choices” that the individual made, because of what he didn’t do. Of course, a few generations ago, we had many unmarried people without children (especially women), and generally they stayed home and looked after their parents without question.

I wrote a post on my retirement blog today suggesting that this is a good reason for some single persons (gay or not) to consider buying homes capable of accepting other dependents, so they maintain sovereignty over their own lives. Such persons may suddenly wish they were married with children themselves, so that they would have a domain of their own to help them retain a sense of equality with others. Suddenly, they are forced to fight and “compete” for the welfare dependent others (such as elders) when they had no choice or did nothing to create the problem, rather than for goals chosen by them. They may be expected to “play family” when in fact, caring for an elder is not the same thing as raising children and doesn’t command the same respect or deference from others. This is really a very serious issue, and everyone seems to miss it. By the way, my retirement blog (again, check the Profile) has a lot of posts about the growing and complex business of long term care insurance, which can become important to adult children, especially those who are themselves childless, and who could some day be held to state filial responsibility laws. The idea that adults can be forced to support others (not their own children) in situations that they could not prevent or did not cause can have profound implications on our moral debates in areas like personal responsibility and sexual morality.

Nevertheless, I have to admit we have a serious disconnect in how we think about personal responsibility. We have grown accustomed to think of everyone as separately accountable for what he or she does, and the modern economic world (including the workplace) tends to demand that. We think of family problems as private matters, to be resolved by the parents themselves, as not our business. And for some time during the boom years of the 90s we could afford to look at it that way. Not now, though. We are constantly reminded of the vulnerability of our “independence”: 9/11, natural disasters, global warming, pandemics (besides HIV), demographics (people living much longer while frail with fewer children), and the latest financial crisis. Autonomy is a bit of a mirage.

Then, it makes sense to admit that responsibility for others comes from events a bit more complicated than just “choosing” to procreate. (I’m setting aside the arguments about immutability; they can be worked back in later.) Anyone is a product of the world that brought him up, and putatively he may owe something back. So it makes sense to say that anyone should be able to face being asked to do caregiving, or to participate in raising other people’s children.

The caregiving she is talking about here is quite different in quality from the volunteer buddy work that the gay community developed in the 1980s with the AIDS crisis (Whitman Walker, GMHC, Oak Lawn Counseling Center, etc). With eldercare one is dealing with a blood relative who may live a long time, become very dependent and need to be pampered, never get better, and who may have a strained relationship with the gay male caregiver, at least in Polikoff’s scenario.

What seems to be at issue is emotional loyalty. Stable traditional marriages are often buttressed on the belief that the parents own a lifetime lien on the blood loyalty of their adult children, who will value the family for its own sake. That gets tied back into the socialization patterns and value systems that make long standing monogamous marital intimacy “worth it” for many couples. Gay men, in particular, seem to have rejected what they perceive as gratuitous, automatic emotion within the family, in exchange for the right to choose intimacy on their own terms, often outside the limits of family manipulation. They may or may not have rejected conventional courtship and familial behavior partly out of discomfort with having to “compete” with other males (for the "privilege" of dominion over future family members). In the grand scheme of things, this hyper-individualism can leave other family members (especially elders) feeling abandoned. It seems as unfair to those parents or other potentially dependent family members as more conventional marital infidelity would be,

Ted Koppel’s special on China pointed out that homosexuality and gay discos in are tolerated there, but many men there believe they must go back into the closet at 30 and marry to be able to fulfill the expectations of “filial piety” in their culture.

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