Thursday, November 6, 2008

The New Symbol

The election of Barack Obama comes as a relief. It means so much for the future of our country -- speaking volumes about our capacity to take care of one another and our shared commitment to solving crises like war in the Middle East and global warming. It feels like an end to a long era of injustice that started...when? With Reagan? Segregation? Slavery? The colonization of this land?

Something hopeful seems to lie ahead.

I've been moved by the many reflections by African Americans about what this election means to them personally. I have read and heard young men of color say they hope this will change how people see them -- and that it changes how they see themselves. When I picked my son up at school yesterday, a little girl was hanging up a portrait of Barack Obama. Like our next President, she is biracial, and she had carefully colored his skin a rich shade of brown. She lifted the portrait to the wall to see how it looked before running to get some tape.

Marian Wright Edelman recently wrote:
[This] election is a reminder that the United States is still a place of bold ideas and a beacon of hope. It says to every child of color and every poor boy and girl that you belong too, and you do have a future. Throughout America’s history, race has been a noose choking our capacity to soar. At a time when we face a great litany of problems, it is moving to see the American people's common sense and faith trump fear. It is truly a triumph that yesterday Americans voted for competence and a new vision, regardless of race.
She then goes on to call us to see this not as the end that it feels like, but the beginning of the next era of justice-making. She writes:
Leaders are only as good as citizens demand them to be, and we must create a citizens' movement that will fight to provide every child in America with health coverage, that will work to end child poverty, and that will stop funneling children down a prison pipeline that threatens to re-segregate our nation.
There is much work to be done. On health care, poverty, education. Justice work. Edelman urges us not to become complacent or overly proud of ourselves for the symbolic importance of this moment in time. But I do want to linger here just a bit longer.

Although I can be only an ally in the long struggle against racism and white supremacy, I was deeply moved by the sight of Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama taking their place as our nation's "first family." Seeing them standing on that stage in Grant Park was powerful in the way that moments of symbolic, historic, and ritual importance are.

I have never been much of a flag-waver, but seeing that beautifully multi-racial crowd so filled with unity and with joy, waving the American flag: the flag looked different to me. It looked to me so much more like America.

I felt and feel such a strong sense of "this changes everything."

The next day, that phrase came to mind again as I read the results of the anti-gay marriage ballot propositions that passed during this same election. I have heard married couples express surprise at the power they have experienced by being married. "I don't know why," they say, "but it just changes everything."

How disappointing that in an election that I believe truly changed what it means to utter the words "United States of America," voters in states as diverse as California, Arizona, Florida and Arkansas chose to cling to old definitions of marriage and family. By banning gay marriage or the adoption of children by gay couples, large groups of Obama supporters seem to have spoken the message, "Yes we can... as long as we're not gay people wanting to marry or build a family."

I have always been open to the possibility that civil unions are enough. Pragmatically, I wonder if federal Civil Union legislation might be possible in the next 8 years.... But watching the Obamas onstage in Grant Park, knowing that this moment transcended party platforms or social issues--watching the world change in a moment--I understood why it really does have to be marriage.

No church will be forced to change its doctrine or sacraments, no one will be forced to show up at gay weddings. Send a gift or don't, but the world needs gay marriage just like the world needs an African American President of the United States.

When Kevin & I first set out on our marriage boycott, we did it for our friends. We did it for solidarity and feminism and justice. It was also for ourselves, because we wanted our life to be the testament to our commitment--not the words on a legal document.

We believed then, and believe now, that love makes a family. We believed that our relationship was no more authentic or valid by virtue of the fact that we can procreate. We didn't find weddings to be particularly expressive of who we are as a couple. We knew that as an opposite-sex couple, we wouldn't actually endure much discrimination for our choice; and felt that maintaining our legal separateness was a feminist act and assertion of our individual identities. We felt that marriage is overly-romanticised and too easily entered into.

Today I realize that marriage matters, but not for the reasons that get the most press. It's not because children need two parents or need one role model of each gender to live with them. It's not because it protects you from breaking up or makes taxes easier or because little girls grow up wanting to be princesses.

It matters because marriage changes things. A co-worker told me yesterday that his daughter is getting married, and as a parent, and seeing the pride on his face, I exclaimed, "Aw! Congratulations!" I was swept up in what this means for him and for his daughter. Swept up by the way the world changes when you get married. When you have a child. When your child gets married. Marriage matters at a symbolic, ritual level. And so for the homophobe, the simple legal recognition of same-sex unions feels like a desecration.

As I experienced the power of symbolic change on election night, I was also aware that during these world-changing ritual moments, old symbols must be shattered. White supremacy has lost some of its power as the white male monopoly on our nation's highest office comes to an end.

While the archetype of marriage is becoming cracked and worn with age, it still stands. It's sad to develop a deeper appreciation for the alchemy of the marriage rite while being so clearly reminded of why my relationship won't fit inside such an inadequately-defined vessel.

I believe the marriage archetype will shatter one day and that a new symbol will replace it. The new symbol will not be defined by body parts. It will look much more like love. The new symbol will stand tall and complete as a family on a stage: smiling, waving, filling hearts with joy.