Attacking Families Outside the Box

By Seth Freed Wessler Apr 24, 2009

Marriage equality is hot these days. This week the fire–and the brimstone–was in Maine, where the legislative judiciary committee held a hearing on a proposed marriage bill. Thousands of Mainers proudly came out to support the bill, filling the Augusta, Maine Civic Center. But opponents were there too carrying all their usual tactics and then some. On top of the normal displays of homophobic drive , many who testified against the marriage equality bill added a new layer of race baiting, employing tired attacks against against people of color to vilify queer families. I grew up in Maine and came back from New York City to testify about the impact that marriage inequality has on families like mine. I sat in the bleachers of the Augusta Civic Center with my mother, her partner and my two younger sisters. We listened to conservatives attack families like ours (“those people” they called us,”) declare us illegitimate and pronounce us threats to “all that is good.” “Don’t ask God to bless your sin and call it marriage,” said one of them in a moment of what my mother’s partner described as “frightening hate rapped in religion.” But when they weren’t using religion, the anti-equality speakers also used race. Paraphrasing Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s account of Black families, a speaker said, “we’re raising a generation of boys, a generation of Black boys, who don’t have fathers, without the love that only a mother can provide.” Another speaker quoted neo-eugenicist Charles Murray’s recent Washington Post op-ed in which he rehashed his infamous racial biologism. “There are genetic reasons why boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence unsocialized to norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and hold jobs.” The opponents argument is clear: gay marriage threatens to produce the same kind of anti-social, criminals that they claim Black families produce. The fight for equal marriage in this country has largely been a white one, with establishment gay groups pushing people of color off to the side, maligning race, and communities of color. In California, Black and Brown people were largely excluded from the campaign for equal marriage rights and then blamed for the defeat of gay marriage when the state voted it down. The blame game exposed preexisting and entrenched racism. But in Maine, something else was going on yesterday. While proponents of gay marriage talked about equality, opponents creatively drew on well-worn racial fear mongering to attack gay families. The opposition says that if gay people have children–which they seem to think will only happen if gay marriage is recognized– it will lead to the growth of an class of unloved children–a categorical accusation that until now, they have reserved for of Black families. By injecting tropes about Black fatherhood and scary Black boys into the discussion, opponents of marriage equality are using pernicious racial stereotypes to propel this manifestation of their intolerance. But as queer families are pegged with the same old tropes long used to rip apart the social safety net and criminalize whole populations of Black and Brown people, there are real questions about that happens when white people ignore racism. If the gay and straight progressives had stood with and helped dismantle these rancid ideological attacks over the last three decades, maybe conservatives would be getting less play out of them now. “Please consider carefully the implication of passing this bill,” said another speaker. “We are no longer the safe and sheltered place we once were. We are seeing rising crime and increasing violence.” The lily white state of Maine is no longer safe they believe, and it’s implied that people of color from away are the reason why. For them, gay marriage will add to this decline. According to these rants, the problem is not Black families or gay families but all families that do not fit into their mold. We all need to join together to stop the assault on families.