Congratulations to our own Fran and Anna and all the same-sex parents out there who now can celebrate and honor their marriage across the country!
If you have been downtown this week, you have likely noticed visitors from around the country here for the Creating Change conference, many of which may appear “unusual”, including deviations from traditional expressions of gender. What better opportunity to talk to our children about how to talk to and about people who are different from ourselves?
Connection is good and thus communication is good… but not when it marginalizes, embarrasses, stereotypes, or otherwise causes harm. I have learned in recent years about the concept of microaggressions (first named by Derald Wing Sue), which can occur when your statement to or about another person or actions, even if entirely well-intended, causes hurt. A classic example is telling a person of color “you are so well-spoken!”; on the surface this may sound like a complement, but in fact has the underlying message that because of the hue of his/her skin, the fact that he/she speaks good English is surprising or notable. There is an underlying negative stereotype being communicated.
Even though I am a member of three marginalized groups as a Jewish, lesbian female, I am as guilty as anyone of committing these against others. As a professor, it has taken effort to learn how not to be a microaggressor of people in my classes, but it has been harder to purge tendencies to do this when I meet new people in a more casual setting. It is my hope that sharing what I have learned will help you be a more kind and open person, rather than just make you feel bad.
While my first example about race may seem obvious, other types of microaggressions may not. Another type of microaggression is the invasion of privacy – in my case, when someone asks how I, a lesbian, got pregnant. A good way to test for whether you are committing a microaggression is to ask yourself whether asking the question/making the statement to someone of the dominant group would be considered inappropriate. When we see a heterosexual-appearing couple with a baby, no one would dream of asking them “how they got pregnant.” It is simply too intimate, and frankly, irrelevant. This is along the same line as “who is the real mother?” or “Who is the father?”- and yes, we have received these questions literally dozens of times. As a self-described ambassador and educator, I take it upon myself to answer these questions in gentle and generous ways, but folks should be aware that it isn’t good manners to probe into someone’s intimate personal life unless you have been invited to do so.
In the U.S., pretty much any question or statement relating to someone’s physical person is considered highly personal. Thus, commenting on or asking about someone’s body shape (“Are you pregnant?”), sexual practices (“So who is the ‘man’ in your relationship?”), skin color (“But you don’t look Hispanic”), gender (“Are you a boy or a girl?”), or other physical feature (“So, was your mom Asian or something?”) is not respectful.
You may be thinking at this point (as I did at one time), “Geez! I guess I can’t say anything to anyone! I think people just need to grow a thicker skin for gosh-sakes.” If so, consider this: would you make a comment to a white male in a business suit you just met about his body? Why not? When I framed it like this for myself, I realized that I automatically obey rules of civility and respect with someone like this, whereas I may not with someone with lesser social status. Commenting on someone’s body is a power play (consider the boss who comments on the legs of his secretary); one automatically does not do it with someone of perceived equal or higher status.
Curiosity about bodies is frequently behind microaggressions, and folks with an obvious physical difference are very familiar with experiencing these types of microaggressions. We all know that staring is rude; however, many do not realize that actively avoiding looking is alienating as well. Reaching out and communicating with others isn’t the problem; putting differences at the forefront is and ignoring rules of civility are. When our son saw a man at the grocery store with dwarfism and asked me about him, I encouraged him to talk to the man directly (but not to ask him “what is wrong with you” or assume that the man wanted to talk about being a little person). I also looked the man in the eye and addressed him with respect. In this way, we hope our son learns to see the person, not the difference, first and foremost. Later, I explained to our son that talking about people’s bodies is private, but that he can always introduce himself and get to know someone if he is curious.
The next type of microaggression is one I am particularly guilty of committing. This is the type where someone is singled out from the group without their permission. For example, I used to do an exercise in my class where I had students come to the front of the classroom to plot on a graph their own height against their father’s height (yeah, I know, bad – even that alone assumes everyone has met their father, knows their father, and wants to show connection with their father), to illustrate statistical concepts. These days, I draw a dummy-graph on the board and ask the class as a whole to explain why a father’s height doesn’t perfectly predict a child’s height, even though height is a genetic trait. Any student can answer “because people don’t necessarily have a genetically-related father” among the myriad of other reasons (e.g. gender of the child, nutritional difference between generations, the height of the mother, disease, etc.). By inviting responses, no one receives an uninvited spotlight, or is pressured to disclose something personal. Another example would be when I would unintentionally make eye contact with the Japanese-American student in the class any time I mentioned Japan in a lecture. Self selection is the key element here; our son loves to talk loudly about celebrating Rosh Hashana (singling himself out), but feels bad if the teacher announces to the class, “Jeremy won’t be here tomorrow because he’s Jewish” (being singled out).
The last type I have been made aware of (and am also guilty of) is that of presumption. Asking “So, do you have lots of siblings?” to a Mormon person is yucky because it makes an assumption based on a stereotype. When said in the first conversation with someone, a statement like this also reveals that the speaker is seeing the person as a category, rather than an individual. This is why “Some of my best friends are (black/Jewish/gay/from another country/disabled)” is such a stupid thing to say. It may be that the person committing the microaggression is excited to show off their “knowledge” as a way of connecting, but when on the receiving end, I find it to just be alienating – it makes me feel invisible. I once had a mentor who would bring up the fact that I was Jewish in nearly every conversation we had, even if there was no direct relevance. Her best friend growing up was Jewish, and clearly being with me reminded her of her friend. But my mentor herself was not Jewish, and her comments about understanding “Jewish mothers” (for example) made me very uncomfortable. Just because you had a friend/read a book/did research on/spent time in a certain place doesn’t mean that you know what another’s experience is.
A friend recently gave me an example of a microaggression that puzzled me for some time: saying “You sure are lucky to get to bring your dog with you” to someone with a service animal. Initially, this seemed to me to be innocuous enough, especially if said with eye contact and a smile. But one problem is that this statement is terribly presumptive; whether having a condition that warrants needing that kind of help is “lucky” is not anyone else’s call to make. The other problem with it is that it makes light of something that is actually quite serious. It made sense to me when I remembered people saying to me that I was “lucky” that I didn’t have to go to school/work on Yom Kippur. I find that comment very irritating; I spend the “holiday” fasting and sitting in (often very dull) religious services reflecting on everything I did wrong that year. Saying that it is “lucky” suggests that you are getting something special for your minority status, rather than simply something that you need. It is not fun or special to have to depend upon a service animal to function independently.
I love meeting new people and want to find a point of connection with them. I want the person I am with to know I’m okay with and even celebrate who they are. If I want to connect with the interesting woman from Afghanistan, it is far better for me to seek out a true, shared experience, even if it is only that we are standing in the same line (“Geez, we sure are moving slowly!”). Having children is a great one; most parents love to talk about their kids, and parents do have some universal experiences. “Where did you get that neat t-shirt? I’d love to buy one for my son.” Or “My 7-yr old loved that toy, too.” are statements that make connection without presumption, invasion of privacy, or singling out.
As a final note, and in case you aren’t convinced this is worth your time, consider the experience of the “different” person. A single, ignorant comment or question does not cause the harm- it is instead the day-after-day, year-after-year aspect that can keep a person alienated from the main culture. Microaggressions are so dangerous because it is a constant drumbeat that the person is not worth the regular rules of civility and respect. Microaggressions have been compared to “death by a thousand paper cuts.” They silence and disempower. For me, the main benefit of being aware of and avoiding microaggressions has been opening the possibility of real connection with others, which is what I wanted all along.
I’d like to thank Shanna Katz for her edits to this blog.
What is it about the love between a mother and her son? Any parental bond with their child regardless of gender is special in its own way- I can certainly speak from experience as a “daddy’s girl” and as a daughter who is close with her mother. However, now in the parental role myself, I am cognizant of having entered a particular sisterhood as the mother of a son.
There is much misunderstanding in our culture about the mother-son bond, not the least of which being the widespread use (and misuse) of Freud’s term “Oedipus complex”, from Greek mythology’s tragic Oedipus who accidentally married his mother. My theory about this is that outsiders can only understand intense love within a sexual context and so when they observe a strongly bonded son misappropriate this term to describe him. Similarly, the label “mama’s boy” is used as a demeaning epithet. Despite the misperceptions, research shows that a strong bond between mother and son is a good thing (http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/09/opinion/drexler-mamas-boys/).
Regardless, there are many wonderful picture books featuring mother-son love, for all kids and parents to enjoy. Here is just a sample:
Run Away Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd: This timeless classic was first published in 1942 and is a staple in any children’s library. In case you might have forgotten, this is the one about the bunny who keeps asking what would happen if he ran away from his mama, who always had an answer for him: that there was no escaping her and her love for him. The feelings conveyed in the story and pictures are so universal, the fact that it is a mother and a son can easily be forgotten, but many stories that are about mothers and sons can be seen as a variant of this original book.
I Love You, Stinky Face by Lisa McCourt and Cyd Moore: In this more recent book, the son challenges his mother not with running away, but rather with turning into terrible creatures: “but Mama, what if I become a stinky, smelly skunk?”, and like the bunny’s mom, there are wonderful and tenacious answers to assure the son that she is not going anywhere, no matter how gross or strange he becomes. Unlike Runaway Bunny, though, this may resonate even stronger for mothers and sons because of the latter’s ability to actually become gross and scary.
Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Sheila McGraw: To me, this is “I Love You, Stinky Face” told from the parent’s perspective. In it, you watch the destructive toddler become the messy kid become the loud and crazy-making teenager, but always with the refrain from the mother, “I love you forever, I like you for always. As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” SPOILER ALERT- At the end, if you aren’t in tears already, the tables turn and it is the son rocking the mother in his arms.
No David, by David Shannon: This is the first of several wonderful books in this genre by David Shannon, that features David being told not to pick his nose, make a mess, eat with his mouth open, etc. but like Mars Needs Moms, ends with a big mother-son embrace and declaration of unconditional love. Kids will love the illustrations of the gross behavior that are reminiscent of kids’ scribbles.
Mars Needs Moms, by Berkeley Breathed: Before it was a movie, it was a wonderfully illustrated children’s book by former cartoonist who brought us Opus and Bill the Cat. This story flips the genre a bit on its head by beginning with misunderstanding and resentment by the son of the mother, “a broccoli bully”, but ends with a celebration of his love for her and understanding that she loves him. It’s written by a father, and reflects the parental fantasy that children will appreciate everything we do for them someday.
As comedienne Kira Soltanovich sang at a recent show she calls “The Pump and Dump” (in reference to what breastfeeding mothers are told to do if they drink alcohol),
“You’re never gonna love another woman like you love me…”
I laughed so hard I cried… because I understood. I can already imagine the jealousy I might feel for a future girlfriend or wife. The poor woman is going to have to contend with not one but two mothers-in-law, God help her.
In the meantime, I’ll continue enjoying reading these books with our son and getting all the snuggling in I can while we’re still the most important women in his life.
“Do you take Fran to be your lawfully wedded wife, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?” The mayor smiles as he asks me. I am radiant, wearing my mother’s wedding gown for the fifth and final time. I am pleased to be able to still squeeze into it after all these years and a pregnancy.
“I DO!” I proudly answer. It has been a long road to get here, but marriage equality has finally arrived in Colorado.
I have married Fran nine times; that is, there have been nine, formal, witnessed events that affirmed our commitment to each other: Buying our house together as non-married persons, estate planning with our lawyer, our religious wedding, legally changing my last name to Fran’s, everything legal involved with having a child together as non-married persons of the same sex, registering at the County Clerk’s office as “Designated Beneficiaries”, getting a civil union, and then officially married twice. Had it been available to us, a single wedding with marriage license would have sufficed, saving us literally thousands of dollars and carrying more protections than the entire patchwork of legal documents we have amassed.
Fran and I had our first wedding in 2005, two years before the birth of our son. At the time, I was surprised how many of the 100 attendees that summer morning seemed shocked to learn from the rabbi’s sermon that we had no rights as a couple whatsoever, and that our formal ceremony that day did nothing to change that.
Around that time, Fran and I discussed what language we would use to refer to each other. When I cautiously asked what she thought about “wife”, Fran made a face. “No way. Sounds… just wrong. Please don’t call me that. Besides, we aren’t actually married, not according to the law.”
And so it was decided we would say “partners”, but it made me feel sad. As patriarchal and baggage-filled the word “wife” is, I had grown up assuming I would become one some day. The truth is, both Fran and I are really quite conservative. Some would call that ironic, given that we are lesbians and from dyed-in-the-blue Democrat families, but despite assumptions of what that may mean to some people, traditions and values are very important to both of us. It is one of the reasons why we wanted to have a wedding before we had children. It’s simply what you do. We didn’t choose to be lesbians, but we do choose to be honest, both with ourselves and others about who we are. And that meant pledging to each other, our families and community that we were committed to each other for life.
Occasionally, as the years passed, a friend or family member would refer to Fran or me as the other’s “wife”, which always gave me a little thrill of normalcy I usually deny caring much about. But the fact remained that calling her my partner lumped us with lots of pairings that weren’t equal in heft, including business partners, and lovers who had no assumptions about spending their old age together.
Still, I hesitated using the word ‘wife’ myself, so used to the genderless language of ‘partner’ and ‘spouse’. This avoidance caused many problems, as the person I was talking to had to guess its meaning, and was usually wrong.
Picture an intake nurse, looking at computer screen: “Married or single?”
Me, pausing: “Um, I have a partner”
Nurse: “And what does he do?”
Me: “She is an analytics consultant”
Nurse: “Oh! I’m sorry!”
I have had hundreds of similar conversations, frustrated by people feeling they must apologize when I tell them the gender of my spouse. Being able to comfortably refer to my wife would eliminate this problem, but this is not the reason that I started using the “w” word. It was because of our son.
When the first civil unions bill was introduced to the Colorado legislature, Fran and I were there to testify, speak at rallies, and be interviewed by the media. Because of the exposure, our son heard lots of talk about what marriage is. Needless to say, it was quite confusing; our house has at least a dozen framed photos from our wedding in 2005, and of course our son and his friends see us as no different from any other set of parents. Jeremy came home saying that so-and-so was telling another classmate that Jeremy’s parents were fighting for the right to get married- but weren’t we married already? And he thought that we were fighting for a civil union? What is a civil union?
It was then that we realized that our second-class status in the law was already impacting our son. We didn’t want him to internalize any concept that we were lesser than, even if the state disagreed.
May 1st 2013, just moments after the stroke of midnight, we were the first couple to receive a civil union in the state of Colorado, officiated by Mayor Michael Hancock with Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav. My mother had flown in for it, and we both wore our gowns. Despite how late it was, hundreds of couples seeking civil unions, every news outlet, and a crowd of supporters showed up. It was a triumphant occasion.
After that, we agreed to start using the word “wife” to refer to each other. And yet, I still felt like a fraud. Civil unions do not have the legal equivalence to marriage, nor the social history or meaning. We weren’t done, and I told reporters that we hoped to put on the wedding gown one final time.
Many of our friends were travelling out of state to where there was marriage, and we were frequently asked why we didn’t do the same. Our answer was always the same: legally it would be meaningless, since the marriage would not be recognized in the state we called home. Furthermore, why should we travel hundreds of miles to perform a basic civil function? Would anyone ask a heterosexual couple that question? It was a question of dignity.
During the following year, there was the cascade of rulings in one court after another throughout the country, affirming again and again that denying the basic right to marry was not constitutional. We rallied at the federal courthouse in Denver when the appellate ruling for the Utah case was about to be heard; I was afraid to hope that those conservative justices would rule in our favor. And yet, Dr. King’s adage proved to be true: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. And so it did, again and again.
On July 9, a judge in state court issued a ruling that Colorado’s marriage ban was unconstitutional. We woke up the next day to a flurry of calls and emails asking if we had seen the tweet from the Denver County Clerk, Deborah Johnson: she would join the Boulder County Clerk in issuing marriage licenses. We quickly showered and headed downtown with our son, now 6. We were the first couple to be married in Denver. As we stood at the counter among a handful of reporters and Clerk’s office staff, our son declared, “I want to be the ring barrier!” to which Councilman Chris Nevitt (who had come down from his office to witness) corrected, “No, the ring barrier has been broken!” The occasion was happy, but a bit anti-climatic. I had imagined getting into my dress again and having more people present who were close to us.
But, the journey wasn’t over. The 10th Circuit Court ruling was immediately appealed, and a stay was put on the county clerks to prevent them from issuing more licenses. “Congratulations!” alternated with “Are you really married?” in conversations with neighbors and friends during those weeks waiting to hear what the U.S. Supreme Court would do. When it was announced that they would not hear any of the Circuit Court appeals, thereby allowing those pro-marriage equality decisions to stand, I both celebrated and mourned that the country would soon have equality in 30 of 50 states. Further, Colorado’s conservative attorney general John Suthers was saying that the licenses issued before the stay (including ours) may not be valid. We were in legal limbo. Saying “wife” still felt like playing pretend.
I had hope when we received an invitation to be married by the Mayor and to be issued another marriage license that this would finally feel like the real thing. Although we only had two hours warning, I pulled out my gown and Fran ran to get her hair done. When she showed up at Jeremy’s school to get him, he sighed, “Ugh, again?!?” but soon got into the spirit, insisting on bringing his violin and practicing writing his name for his duty as witness.
When I heard the words, “By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you married,” a weight was lifted. Jeremy finally has indisputably wedded parents. Fran is my wife and I am hers. And together we will watch the arc of the moral universe, joining our voices to the countless others who will not rest until full equality is won.
“Mommy time!” I am jolted awake as a 47 lb. missile hurls at our bed, all legs and arms. I smile and roll over, closing my eyes, because, although I am a parent with a pair of X chromosomes and identify with pretty much all things female, I am not the one my son wants this morning. I am Mama. I am also typically the killjoy in the morning, the one who is all business on weekdays, making sure shoes are on, tooth brushing done, snacks made, violin practiced, breakfast eaten, school forms signed and backpack is ready. Our son doesn’t want to take any chances this Sunday, so it’s all about Mommy. Wrestling and giggling ensues for a minute or so next to me on the bed, but then he is on the move, dragging my groggy spouse from under the warm covers.
“Mama, go back to bed,” he orders solemnly with all the authority a 5½ year old can muster. I could feel excluded, but instead, his bond with the adult I love most in all of the world, the one I have pledged to be with and care for all the days of my life, makes me happy beyond words – and not just because it means I get to sleep in this morning. I have seen too many instances of lopsided families where allegiances and preferences form (and then the inevitable resentments and jealousies) to not feel deeply, deeply grateful for what we have. Last night, while my wife was at a function (an “LGBT parents mixer” she helped organize), he and I had had our turn, snuggling on the couch watching a kids movie from my 80’s youth. Now, understandably to me, he wants her.
We each have our roles; I am the boo-boo and bike fixer, she is the ball-thrower and laundry-washer. I am also the one that packs the backpack for outings, so I ignore my son’s direction and throw on a robe to go downstairs. My wife is certainly capable of putting some snacks and spare, size-5 underwear in a bag. She does this and much more when I am out of town (teasing from friends about her helplessness in the kitchen not withstanding), but I am happy to do whatever I can to support their agenda this morning.
The two of them are going to ride to a nearby café for breakfast and then off on “an [undefined] adventure.” Like many Coloradan kindergartners, our son is already quite adept on his two-wheel bike. He is quite proud of it- a blue 20” mountain bike with hand breaks and gear shifters. It is his first major purchase with his own funds, a combination of the consignment profit from selling his outgrown ski gear and wooden train set. Or maybe I’m the proud one, hoping that this exercise I orchestrated has taught him a bit about commerce and the value of money. My wife is mostly just glad we got our money’s worth on the train set we sold on Craigslist while wistful about the Groupon I forgot to use when we bought the bike. We each have our strengths.
I fill their water bottle, make sure the Epi-pen (emergency medication for his peanut allergy) is packed, and take out the trash as I walk them to the gate. “Love you!!” I wave to their retreating backs as I wonder how to productively procrastinate the work that is waiting me at the house.
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