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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Normalizing Same-Sex Marriage Talk

Dennis Fox

Marchh 11 , 2004

Last month, our 10-year-old mentioned which boys at school supposedly "look gay." Shortly thereafter -- the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention was on TV -- she said she didn't understand why anyone objects to gay marriage. Perhaps it's easier for the young to compartmentalize conflicting influences, before a lifetime of warped perceptions contaminates an early sense of justice. At least in fifth grade, lunchroom gender speculation doesn't always determine public policy preference.

Fortunately, even now my daughter's tentative absorption of society's masculinity and femininity norms coexists with her contrasting experience-based knowledge. One of her friends, whose house she regularly visits, has two same-sex parents whose relationship, she sees, is no better or worse than most others. Another friend's two mothers are separated, though not divorced because, of course, they could not marry. The first neighbors my daughter would run to for emergency help -- in many ways the block's mainstays -- are two women she'd be horrified to hear anyone demean.

Because early impressions form amidst tumultuous peer interaction, schools should address sexual orientation as a matter of course. Locally, the Safe Schools Program trains teachers to deal with issues related to lesbian and gay students, but converting that training into ongoing action happens only sporadically, especially for kids my daughter's age.

Every year Brookline schools emphasize Black History Month and Women's History Month. Fourth-graders hear disabled community members recount their personal stories in Understanding Disabilities workshops. In each case, educators recognize the humanity of historically disfavored groups, trying to move equality from promise to reality.

The school calendar does not yet include Gay and Lesbian History Month or Understanding Sexual Orientation, but the teachable moment is right now, when the personal identify of those who depart from conventional sexual expression divides a public torn by its own childhood-induced limitations.

Unfortunately, a recent Boston Globe article reports that Brookline's Devotion School principal, John Dempsey, cautioned Austin Naughton, an openly gay seventh-grade social studies teacher, "not to talk much about his personal situation while teaching the [same-sex marriage] issue to his class." I know Naughton slightly from years of anti-MCAS organizing. It seems to me he already knows that, as Dempsey put it, "an educator needs to use judgment when dealing with young children from various backgrounds." But "using good judgment" should not be a euphemism for not personalizing controversial topics at all.

Naughton points out that heterosexual teachers routinely mention to students their spouses and other family topics. I know from my own teaching that personal stories, handled appropriately, clarify abstract issues and humanize teacher-student interaction. I would rather have my daughter's teachers make issues personally relevant than let silence disguise reality.

Marriage is no panacea, but sometimes the law makes it necessary. In a Brookline teachers union newsletter, Naughton wrote that, among other things, marriage would enable his long-time partner to remain in the United States when his student visa expires. My wife and I, too, got married -- in a courthouse civil procedure -- partly to surmount legal technicalities. The state has no more business judging Naughton's motivation than it does mine.

Ideally, the state would provide only civil unions to all who want contractual protection, gay or straight, and leave the M-word to religious organizations. When the Constitutional Convention resumes this week, though, the best realistic outcome would be to accomplish nothing, leaving intact the Supreme Judicial Court's allowance of same-sex marriage.

Nervous legislators, however, may not even approve last month's inadequate proposed compromise -- banning gay marriage while institutionalizing same-sex civil unions. Although constitutionally guaranteed unions would surpass expectations many gay rights activists had a year ago, a marriage ban would prevent equality forever.

As Massachusetts legislators renew their debate, gays and lesbians from New Paltz to San Francisco rush to marry without knowing if courts will recognize their ceremonies, while Congress promises to cure the marriage epidemic by amending the US Constitution. There's sudden life to dry theories about state control of individual behavior, the relationship between judges and legislators and between state and federal law, and the nature of family, equality, and human rights. Every social studies class should participate in this drama, fully informed by its teacher's pedagogical and personal experience.

From A Married Anarchist

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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