The Gay Experience, TCKS, and The President
When I heard the President state this past Wednesday in an interview that he supports equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian partners I got tears in my eyes. True, it doesn’t change legislation, but to have a sitting President state his support for marriage rights for ALL Americans–that’s HUGE! The person whose opinion I was most looking forward to hearing after the President’s statement was blogger/writer/pundit and all-around brilliant man, Andrew Sullivan. I read Sullivan’s blog daily, it’s the one thing on-line that I never miss. I love him because you can’t stick him in a box, he doesn’t wrap himself in a political ideology. I love him because, while I don’t always agree with him, the intellectual and emotional honesty with which he approaches politics and life is something I greatly admire. Sullivan, of course, did not disappoint me. When I read his initial thoughts in a piece on his blog entitled “Obama Lets Go of Fear,” I cried again. Just to clarify, I’m not a crier but this is a subject I care deeply about for a lot of reasons so it gets to me.
Today I read Sullivan’s Newsweek piece on the subject, again I found him insightful and eloquent. I can’t imagine how it must feel for children and adults alike who have been marginalized, bullied by family and schoolmates, made to feel that they’re not “normal,” to know that the President of the United States has their back. So Joe Shmoe down the block thinks there’s something wrong with you, well, the President begs to differ. I don’t know if it will help in what, for some, must be a daily battle to maintain self-esteem but I’d reckon it’s a very big step in the right direction.
There’s one other thing about Sullivan’s Newsweek piece that hit very close to home for me and it was this bit:
Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family. The America he grew up in had no space for a boy like him: black yet enveloped by loving whiteness, estranged from a father he longed for (another common gay experience), hurtling between being a Barry and a Barack, needing an American racial identity as he grew older but chafing also against it and over-embracing it at times.
This is the gay experience: the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation. It is easier today than ever. But it is never truly without emotional scar tissue. Obama learned to be black the way gays learn to be gay. And in Obama’s marriage to a professional, determined, charismatic black woman, he created a kind of family he never had before, without ever leaving his real family behind. He did the hard work of integration and managed to create a space in America for people who did not have the space to be themselves before. And then as president, he constitutionally represented us all.
As the mother of three children who are growing up overseas I watch them straddle different cultures, different norms, different habits, languages, ideas of what is “normal” and what is not. I watch them struggle to try to reintegrate when we go home, sometimes it’s simple and sometimes it’s complicated. Parts of them transition from culture to culture easily, in many ways they are chameleons who can change their colors as needed. They’re as comfortable sitting around a communal bowl of food on a dirt floor in Guinea as they are sitting in a posh restaurant in a castle in Ireland or a Johnny Rockets in Virginia–that’s the nature of their lives. But there’s a difference between fitting in and feeling like you belong to a place and a people and, sometimes, they feel like they don’t quite belong even at “home,” in America. Prior to our decision to become a State Department family I’d never thought about how much one’s nationality impacts ones sense of identity and belonging.
When we’re overseas, while our kids are sometimes singled out for being American, by and large they are accepted because they go to school with other nomadic kids so they generally don’t feel like outsiders. When we go home, however, I always worry it’s going to be a different story because I’ve heard about the struggles of Third Culture Kids, as their called, trying to reintegrate into American culture. It’s perfectly understandable for an American kid to feel a bit out of place in Guinea or Costa Rica but in America? While I understand why they don’t automatically feel “at home” I worry that they won’t understand why they don’t automatically feel at home. I worry that they will feel like outsiders in their own country, which could be painful or it could be something they don’t care about, I guess we’ll see. My hope for them is that they’ll create their own sense of belonging and, while they will know they are American, they will also know in a tangible way that they are citizens of the world–they’ll be like cultural soup, rich with flavors from all over the world but still uniquely them.
Either way, Sullivan’s description of the gay experience, of the President’s own struggles to figure out where he fit in relation to the cultures he was straddling, sounded so much like the TCK experience–belonging to different places, different cultures, sometimes feeling like an outsider, and trying to figure out who YOU are in the middle of all of that. It reminded me to be vigilant with my own children to the difficulties that our lifestyle can cause but it also drove home in a very personal way a truth; our humanity has so many different aspects that bind us. Even in the midst of feelings of alienation, of being unsure about where one belongs, there are others there with us, we’re not alone. It brings me comfort to know that there are so many people who can understand my kids in a way even I can’t. I like the fact that a gay, British born, American intellectual has more in common with my (as far as I know at this point) straight, American born nomads than I ever thought possible. I like the thought that Sullivan, and the President, and people like them, have my kid’s backs and that they’ve got theirs. That makes me smile.