Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Mexican Immigrant and a 1st generation Chicana raised a baby and this is what they got

Two weeks ago, Facebook was flooded with the flow of memes of John Pike’s famous and atrocious pepper-spraying of UC Davis Students. Last week, the most popular thing to share was a YouTube video circulated by Titled “Two Lesbians Raised A Baby And This Is What They Got,” the video is of Zach Wahls, the son of two lesbians, addressing the Iowa House of Representatives public forum on House Joint Resolution 6. (The resolution proposed an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa specifying marriage between one man and one woman as the only legal union that is valid or recognized in the state.)

Chances are, you were already familiar with this video. And chances are, you shared it, liked it, commented on it, and maybe even shed a tear while watching it. Truth is, the video is very inspiring for many. The post has been rather successful at bringing awareness about, and (at a minimum) stirring the emotions of supporters for, marriage equality. At least in that way that marriage equality is a one-dimensional fight that cannot be bothered with analyses of racism, classism or sexism. This is his testimony:

By now, I am sure you are expecting me to bring forth a critique. And I will. But first, I must clarify that my critiques will not be of Zach Wahls or his family.

I am writing this post inspired by this video because of the rich fodder it provides for having a dialogue around some of the underlying assumptions, narratives and values that carry the marriage equality movement. But more so, because these assumptions, narratives and values live comfortably within the subconscious rhetoric of white progressives and progressive people of color who buy into them, making it ever challenging for some of us to be a part of the conversation.

Call me crazy. Call me a writer. Language matters.

Now, on to the conversation.

A friend observed (and I agree) that this speech has a very specific context and, within such context, it is relevant, strategic and effective. Although the resolution did pass, the impact of the speech is significant. Now, considering that lawmakers and the experiment of government are not who and where we have traditionally gone to for leadership on matters of racial or economic justice, it is quite possible that Zach Wahls was the best person to have addressed these lawmakers, and that his message was the best message to deliver in this context. (It has been over a decade since I abandoned the silly idea that the first person lawmakers think about for matters of non-punitive government action looks anything like me.) I will even suggest that the strategy of suggesting that the Chairman would be proud of such a son could not have been delivered by a better literal embodiment (even if the chairman were a person of color).

The place where my critiques begin to surface is not where Zach Wahls enters the scene of the marriage equality movement. Rather, my concerns are triggered by the reality that this speech, with more than 15,000,000 hits on YouTube, no longer lives solely within the context of legislative hearings. This speech and, more importantly, these assumptions, narratives and values, live in the subconscious, in the conscious mind, and in the national “equality” rhetoric that so readily embraces, coddles and nurtures such ideals and standards. By bringing this speech to the forefront as a national movement strategy, (or the person who posted it onto the Moveon site) has provided an opportunity for public discussion and debate about the speech and its content.

For purposes of attempting some semblance of organized thinking, I am laying out a few concerns based on themes in the speech. This is not with the intention of contradicting the speaker as these are his words and I am sure they are very true and real for him and his family. Instead, I offer these thoughts hoping to engage in dialogue around how such language, in a broader public realm, affect and marginalize communities of color, and contribute toward making the marriage equality movement (and the LGBT Movement for that matter) irrelevant, and antithetical to racial and economic justice movements.

[Note: There are many themes, spoken and unspoken, within this video. I am only focusing on a few.]

Theme 1: Our family really isn't so different from any other [Iowa] family. 

In a society wrought with ignorance and fear, a common strategy for changing people’s hearts and minds seems to be that of assuaging their fears by humanizing the disenfranchised. A popular tactic has been that of pointing out the similarities between the fearful and powerful, and the vulnerable and powerless. By similarities, we are not talking about a shared human experience, but those ways in which the dominant culture sees a reflection of its own values, religious practices, and socioeconomic status(es) (or aspirations) and allegiance. Whatever the success rate of such a strategy, I question what it means to bring about “justice” by placing the burden of societal ignorance and fear on the shoulders of those targeted by injustice.

Secondly, we live in a country where phrases like “All-American” and “boy next door” are thrown around carelessly. They are a part of a public lexicon and illustrate a specific ideal and physical standard. They define the epitome of gay male desire, including particularly for many fellow gay men of color.

Who do you think of when you hear these phrases? Chances are you do not think of me. I certainly would not. Which is an interesting irony to live with given that throughout my life, the “boy next door” has never looked like the boy such a phrase evokes. So, when the speaker, who embodies the dominant culture and is, in fact, the “All-American boy next door,” says “Our family really is not so different from any other Iowa family,” I stop to wonder, what images of families are going through the minds of his audience (legislators and YouTube viewers alike). Let us not pretend the speaker’s race, gender identity, assumed class status and religious inclinations are irrelevant to his message. These factors are embedded in the delivery of the speech, and, more importantly, in the constructs of its recipients.

So, what happens to those families who are very different from any other Iowa family? Those who, by their very existence, render impossible the concept of "any other Iowa family"? What happens when the subconscious fails to help pretend they do not exist?

What of the family that does not frequent a church, was not in the position to subsidize their child’s public education, nor send their child to a university? What of those families that are not and will not birth and/or raise children? On their own externally defined merit, are these families worthy of marriage equality? If so, let us make viral a YouTube video of their testimony, with their own markers for success, as well.

Theme 2: We’re Iowans, we don’t expect anyone to solve our problems for us. We’ll fight our own battles. We just hope for equal and fair treatment from our government.

Perhaps I have watched too many Republican primary debates, but this smells a little much like “Bootstrap” dogma. We live in a society of relationships. I have never solved my own problems, nor fought my own battles. Sure, I worked like hell and fought like hell, but all aided by a number of critical factors, such as: publicly subsidized medical care during my mother’s pregnancy and the day I was born; a publicly funded primary education; a publicly funded college education, which I was able to complete while riding a public bus that navigated the publicly funded streets of San José, CA, and so on (you get the idea).

Besides irrational, this theme struck me as problematic in that it begins to set a classist and racist undertone. This is one of the ways the marriage equality movement has failed to understand how distant its vision is from the realities of everyday life for poor and working class people of color. In essence, this “theme” begins to make a distinction between “self-sufficient” “Americans” who do not “need” the government to fix their problems, and those “other” “Americans” who do (translation: poor people, people of color). This narrative begins surfacing the truth that the marriage equality movement is ready to leave poor and people of color behind once its goals have been met.

I was raised by a gay couple and I’m doing pretty well.

Standing alone, this statement sounds pretty harmless, and potentially moving. Until we learn what “doing pretty well” means. For a plethora of reasons, these definitions of “doing pretty well” do not apply to a lot of people. In a merit-based society, the belief is that this is the result of laziness, lack of ambition and publicly funded mediocrity. For those of us interested in structural analysis, we believe that the story is far more complicated, with roots tracing back to the early invasion of these lands, American genocide domestically and internationally, slavery, the wrath of a post-slavery America, and so on.

Yes, there is Oprah, President Obama and Jennifer Lopez. Hell, even I made it through college, grad school and into a comfortable middle class job. But let us not kid ourselves. A number of conditions beyond hard work and perseverance were necessary for such “successes” to exist.

I was raised by a Mexican immigrant and a first-generation Chicana, and I am doing pretty well by socially accepted standards. But, just as my experience is not universal, neither is Zach’s. Which is not to say that this is what he was arguing. Rather, it is to caution those inspired by this speech to stop to think about what your subconscious is telling you.

Once we start applying ideals of universal success and results, we begin making distinctions between who is worthy of justice and who is not (a tenet of the criminal justice system). What of the two lesbians who raise a young adult who is doing pretty well by their own standards? What if those standards not only fall beneath the universal ideals we embrace, but are also considered morally or legally reprehensible? Will you applaud them too?

You are telling Iowans that some among you are second class citizens who do not have the right to marry the person you love.

Ah, the “second-class citizens” argument. It seems incomprehensible for the privileged white, those born in this country, those born into a financially stable family, those born with a penis and testicles, to understand the apathetic rolling-of-eyes they receive from those of us who come from generations of second class citizenry (I will not get into the absurdity of “citizenship” altogether).

I agree that preventing same-sex couples from partaking in a civil engagement afforded opposite-sex couples is unjust. However, until the marriage equality movement privileged gays and lesbians start aligning themselves with the rest of the second-class population, I say: 

Welcome to our world.

One could say my words only serve to polarize or derail the conversation. This is not my intent. Rather, I hope to offer that the conversation is not broad enough, that it excludes far too many of us (most of us, I would argue). If we are to bring about meaningful transformation, a change that is sustainable, we must include the voices of those who hold an intellectual, physical and spiritual understanding of the complexities and contradictions of living within ever-racialized economically exploitive contexts; those who do not have the choice to pretend to be oblivious to injustice; those who are called to arms by conviction, not by the sudden realization that their entitlements have been compromised.

Finally, the sexual orientation; race; gender expression(s); immigrant, poor and working class experiences; language; and, languages, of my parents have everything to do with the content of my character. That 27-year-old immigrant mexicano and that 21-year-old first-generation Chicana raised a baby, and I am what they got.