American Families United... Abroad
Boston drivers have a rep, and Fredrick was doing his best to earn his. "Did you look in the cupboards, sweetie?" he asked Gustave, his cell phone gripped in one hand while with the other he steered his SUV. We careened around a mini-van and then sped past a Mini Cooper. "What about the bathroom? Any leaking faucets? Good water pressure?" Speaking of pressure, those six Gs that resulted from Fredrick’s acceleration as he entered, negotiated, and then flew right out of a roundabout left me gasping.
Fredrick was making his final preparations for his move to Holland. Gustave, meantime, was preparing to receive him into his new life. They had plans for how to decorate their home, which Gustave had just determined would be a tidy little house not far from Amsterdam; they had plans for Fred’s new career. They even had plans to get married.
"You could just have gotten married here," I reminded Fredrick, as we took our places at a table in a fancy restaurant--the last eatery that Fredrick, the foodie, had on his so-called Wine Bucket List of places where he needed to dine, before he left the shores of his birth for the Old World--where, ironically, people like us enjoy greater liberty for themselves and their families than they do in the Land of the Free.
"Well, yes," he averred, "except that the immigration people work for the feds, not the state of Massachusetts." He had a point: under DOMA, the so-called "Defense of Marriage" Act and the second big kick in the balls delivered to America’s GLBTs by Bill Clinton (the first was DADT--"Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," the 1993 law that requires gay patriots to lie in order to serve their country in uniform), the federal government may not recognize gay and lesbian families as... well, as families.
"Hey," Fredrick said, suddenly excited, "did I tell you where the house is?"
"No, but close. A little town called... Haarlem!" He cackled in glee.
Fredrick thought this was hilarious: he’s black, he’s American, he’s moving overseas to marry the man he loves and to live in, of all places, Haarlem. And I could see his point, really, but I couldn’t laugh about it: the ironies were just too bitter.
Thinking back over our American history--sometimes proud, sometimes not quite so much--I find that as much as I love my country, I could wish for it to be a little better. What would the people who left their homes in the Old World think of the religiosity that now infuses our civic process, essentially dictating what laws our putatively secular legal code may advance? Would they think nothing of religion--in its flaws and limitations, as well as its capacity to inspire--exerting so much influence in the social and legal spheres? In a nation dedicated to the idea of people being equal, and equally able to defend their lives, preserve their liberty, and pursue their happiness, how is it that some people are still less than equal? How is it that some families still fight just to be recognized?
Fredrick and I had talked many times about his own forebears, who also crossed oceans and faced hardships in their voyages to America. The difference, of course, is that they were men who had once been free--and who were delivered to this land in chains, instead of the other way around. Earlier generations justified slavery by legally categorizing blacks as a mere three-fifths human, a flagrant and demonstrably false argument that can only be taken seriously if one radically revises what the word "human" means.
But have we made much progress since then? At least a meaningful, if fictitious, legal foundation was established when it came to racial minorities being denied their full and proper participation as citizens of this great nation. Gay individuals and families are simply relegated to second-class status out of distaste, and the hysterical claims made about GLBT inferiority don’t even pretend to be based in science or rationality.
I complained to my husband later that evening that bi-national gay and lesbian couples should have the same rights that straights do. Even in the midst of an anti-immigrant delirium, where due process is all but tossed out the window in places like Arizona out of fear of illegal aliens, no one suggests that heterosexuals should not have the right to sponsor their foreign spouses for permanent residency and even citizenship; no one tries to put amendments before the voters to restrict marriage rights to one American and one other American. "At the very least, we should have seen the Uniting American Families Act gain some traction," I said.
"We should have made it simpler than that," my husband told me. "We should have seen marriage made legal for everyone, on a federal level. Then we wouldn’t need to chase rights and protections piecemeal."
But we’re not free to marry here in the land of the free. Even when we live in states where marriage is legal, federal protections and benefits remain out of our reach. Just how many fifths human are queers, anyway? Three-fifths, again, except in the five states where we can marry? Are we a whole four-fifths human in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Washington D.C., and New Hampshire? What happened to that other fifth of our humanity when voters in California and Maine stripped our families of marriage rights? Did it evaporate? Did it, in some strange version of transubstantiation, convert into some stripe of alienness?
"When did we stop leading the free world and start holding back the tide of progress?" I wondered. "It’s not simply that America is more religious now, because Americans have always been religious."
"But religion has changed," my husband reminded me. "Religion used to promote freedom and equality. It used to push for social justice. Now it’s all about punishing ’sinners,’ instead of offering... whatever. Salvation. Liberty. Love. The right to love."
In a few weeks’ time, my friend Fredrick was going to be united with his family. He was going to do it by leaving the land of his birth--the house he’s lived in all his life--the career he’s pursued for 24 years. All because the land of his birth still won’t see him as fully, completely human, deserving of full equal rights and protections under the law.
Fireworks lit the sky and we looked up to see a fiery signature of hope. America’s work is not yet complete, because America is its own greatest feat--a land not just of hope, but of accomplishment. Justice accomplished; freedom accomplished; equality accomplished. Not yet, but maybe some day.
"Mission not accomplished," I laughed, and my husband--used my odd mutterings--just grabbed my hand under the flickering light.
Well, okay then! Let those fireworks really celebrate something: here’s a toast in light to my friend Fredrick! Courageous, outrageous, shamanistic, witty, and wild. He’s taking the A Train to equality and family life: he’s taking that A Train of the Billy Strayhorn song right to Haarlem. God bless this great land--because we need it. And God bless Fredrick and Gustave, because they deserve it: every single jot as much as anybody else.