Teaching Our Children About the Rights All Americans Should Have
I interrupt my regularly scheduled food column to write about a topic I can't pass up: one of the biggest news events of this past Friday night.
If you don't know what I'm referring to, New York just became the sixth U.S. state to legalize gay marriage. Signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the state's same-sex marriage law will go into effect at the end of July. When I checked my Facebook account Saturday morning, I found jubilant posts from my gay and straight friends in New York.
About four years ago, not long after we moved from New York City to State College, we went home for a friend's civil union ceremony. Like most 30-somethings, I've been to – and have been in – a lot of weddings. But this one stood out, and not just because of the absence of a white dress. The love between these men was so authentic, so alive that it seemed to electrify everyone in the room. Grown men from blue-collar Ohio shed tears. Rather than polite applause, the groom and groom were saluted with hoots and hollers. The event was perfect, with one major exception: there was no marriage certificate.
This year, it seems, my friends are getting a marriage license for their anniversary. "OMG I'm getting married . . . AGAIN," one half of the couple wrote on Facebook.
Our son was born in New York, and I'm just a little proud that his birthplace (the very state where gay "uncles" fed him his first baby food and allowed his parents to escape to dinner) has legally recognized what we all knew the afternoon my friends exchanged vows: that their love means just as much as anyone else's.
Like it or not, marriage is one of the most venerated institutions in our society. (You may think it's silly, but heterosexuals have a choice to opt out.) So imagine the message that locking out gays sends to a 6-year-old. It's probably the same conclusion white kids came to when their daddies frequented whites-only country clubs.
As parents, you work hard to teach your kids to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Sometimes society does something so stupid, so heartbreakingly wrong that it threatens to undo your hard work. Other times you get lucky, and the right headlines come streaming across your computer.
Saturday was one of those days.
That morning as we got ready to pick up breakfast at the farmers market, I grabbed my I-Love-New York T-shirt while my husband explained the news to my son. It isn't the first time the topic has come up in our house: One of his cousins, our son realized this summer, has two moms and no father. Just because their family looks different, it isn't wrong, we explained.
But can we convincingly make that point if, here in Pennsylvania, the law says the exact opposite?
Locally, at least in the work force, things look a little better. Both Penn State and State College provide basic legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (In practice it seems, those rights are tougher to secure. This year State College school worker Kerry Wiessmann and her partner, Beth G. Resko, sued the school district, targeting its practice of providing domestic-partner benefits to couples, just not same-sex couples.)
I can only hope that by the time my daughter is old enough to understand, our community and state will learn that we all have the right to a fair shot in work and love. Until then, I'll look for examples that the tide is changing, that even in Pennsylvania there are leaders fighting for the rights of all Americans. People like former State College Mayor Bill Welch, who presided over the public commitment ceremony for gay couples in 2008.
As I read through the coverage of Friday's events in New York, I was struck by one particular sentence. Last year, when it was still illegal for two men or women to get married in New York, Cuomo marched in the gay pride parade and received flak for bringing along his teenage daughter. Clearly, Cuomo's quest to legalize gay marriage wasn't simply about politics. It was about bringing equality to his corner of the world, making it a better place for future generations.
Whether you're gay or straight, born in State College or New York City, that seems like something we should all be able to agree on.