Essay: American Family

March 8, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

GROUP SINGING ON STREET: Freedom is coming, freedom is coming…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In the current noisy debate over homosexual marriage, who has bothered to notice that homosexuals are already forming families — which is the point of marriage — and that homosexuals are taking their place within the American family?

That term “American family,” I grant you, is paradoxical. Americans are notorious failures when it comes to marriage and family. I have always thought our high rate of divorce stems from our individuality — our lust for the “I” that leads us to romanticize cowboys and to raise children to leave home.

Putting the cart before the horse, American courts have already given lesbians and gays the right to adopt and to raise their own blood children. Now state courts, and soon, no doubt, the Supreme Court, will decide whether gay men and women have the right to say “I do” in the first place.

President Bush has lately announced his support of a constitutional amendment that would restrict the word “marriage” to the union of one man and one woman. Perhaps the states will offer homosexual couples a consolation prize, albeit a term of no sacramental connotation — civil unions, which is all many people wanted in the first place. But a few weeks ago, I saw them at city hall in San Francisco — homosexual couples lined up around the block, thousands of them, waiting for a word on a certificate: “Marriage.”

They wanted to be recognized by the community as promising fidelity to one another. The mood of those days was like nothing I had ever seen in gay America. What began as a rebellious political gesture had turned earnest. By contrast, in the gay day parades of summer, every sort of eccentricity and irony and nonconformity is accepted in the defiant celebration of one’s right to proceed as “I.” The energy of the gay political movement of the last 50 years has been driven by the “I,” as at the Stonewall riots in 1969 — my right to define my own privacy.

At the city hall marriages, one was struck by an absence of the gaudy or of camp. There were some wedding dresses, champagne bottles, sure. And there was throughout, a mood of joyful determination to be acknowledged as couples by the civic family. It all had the logic and the simplicity and the shazam of a scene from the “Wizard of Oz”; Mayor Newsom as the wizard somewhere over the rainbow, indeed. A generation ago, thousands, perhaps millions of girls, boys, women, men, came out to their families. It was one of the defining narratives of the ’60s, and the narrative continues.

GROUP SINGING IN CHURCH: Holy, holy, holy…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Mothers and fathers who are members of religious communities that fiercely emphasize the bond of family tell me that their church’s teaching on the importance of family ultimately makes it impossible for them to reject their own sons and daughters. America already sees gay children within some of our most prominent political families, right and left, regardless of what papa’s party says about gays or gay marriage. And regardless of what churchmen may opine, I and, more importantly, my partner have been asked by my family to be godparents to my nieces and nephews many times over.

When I saw the couples at city hall waiting, often with their children, I realized that for pragmatic reasons — schooling, hospital emergency rooms, medical insurance — America is going to have to acknowledge the notion of gay unions if only for the sake of the children. But I also saw your uncle there at city hall, your niece, your cousin, your accountant, your clergyman, members of our American family — he and he; she and she.

People who have internalized a huge burden of loneliness in their lives suddenly stepped forward in the light of day to announce themselves publicly. Each said “I do,” searching in America for “we.” I’m Richard Rodriguez.