By Jeremy Adam Smith
We live in San Francisco on the border between Noe Valley and the Castro, a mad scientists laboratory of new family forms, whose representative on the citys Board of Supervisors is a gay man who co-parents a biological child with his lesbian best friend. Gay and lesbian families are a daily reality in the place where I livein particular, they are very much a part of my family’s daily life, my sons life. Locally, Noe Valley is jokingly referred to as Stroller Valley, because of the on-the street visibility of families with young children. Some of these parents are gay and lesbian, but most are straight. And today, heterosexual parents in neighborhoods like mine know a secret: These are great communities in which to raise children.
Three-year-old Ezra is one of my son’s best buddies, and in October 2008, Ezra joined our circle of friends and family in seeing his moms Jackie and Jessica get married. In just 18 days Californians would vote on Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to eliminate same-sex marriage, but I doubt anyone at the wedding gave that fact much thought. At the wedding Ezra saw the community and the family come together, and he saw us become married, Jackie later told me. He won’t fully understand what that means until he gets older, but it was a very powerful day for him. Most of his friends have a mommy and a daddy, and so I think it was huge for him to have all those friends come together and see us married.
Jessica added, Its so important that Ezra grows up in a supportive environment. He can’t just feel like our family is tolerated. He has to feel accepted. That’s what marriage does for us: It allows us to just be a family, to be a normal part of the community. Jackie and Jessica have always felt as though, as Jessica said, The onus is on us to prove the merit of our relationship. With Ezra in the picture, both mothers felt that marriage was a necessary step in positioning themselves in their social world.
For Jessica’s parents, their daughter’s marriage was an intensely meaningful event. It was wonderful to see Jessica so dressed up and looking so beautiful, said Jessica’s mother Elizabeth. I was just so happy for them. Every member of Jackie and Jessica’s circle of friends and family that later I interviewed felt the same way: It made us happy to see our friends marry. That’s a commonplace feeling at weddings, but, of course, not everyone in America has the right to a legal marriage. Their wedding was extraordinary because it came to us all as a gift we never expected.
During this period of our lives, the director Gus Van Sant filmed Milk, a movie that would later be nominated for eight Academy Awards, in our neighborhood. Harvey Milk, played in the movie by Sean Penn, was the first openly gay politician in the history of the planet, to quote Time magazine. He represented the Castro on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was killed in 1978 (along with Mayor George Moscone) by city supervisor Dan White. When White was sentenced to a mere seven years for the crime, there were riots.
Every day during that spring and summer of 2008, my family watched Milk come together. The facades of many Castro businesses were torn down and rebuilt to appear as they were in the 1970s; we saw Sean Penn and James Franco (whom my wife describes as supernaturally beautiful in real life) loitering around coffee shops; we watched staggering amounts of preparation for scenes that appeared to last for two minutes; and we residents were herded like cattle to avoid stumbling into scenes where our clothing would have made us anachronisms. Gray-haired gay men reminisced about those daysand the Castro’s children, including my son, asked about this Harvey Milk person.
One early morning I walked with Liko down Castro, and they had apparently just finished filming scenes of the riot that ignited after Whites conviction. The Castro was once again transformed, now with smashed windows, burned-out cars, and graffiti.
What’s going on, Daddy? Liko asked.
It’s part of the movie, I said.
Was there a fight?
People were angry because Harvey Milk had been killed.
Who was Harvey Milk?
Harvey Milk was a leader who fought for the rights of people like Ezras mommies, I said, and paused: How could I explain this in a concrete way that he would understand? I said, Some people think that girls shouldnt be able to marry girls and boys shouldnt be able to marry boys.
Why? he asked.
I stopped in my tracks. I had no idea how to answer him. Nothing I could say would make any sense to him, and I feared implying that Ezras mommies were somehow not normal.
This was the first and only moment that I felt real rage against the supporters of Proposition 8. They claimed that they didn’t want to be forced to explain homosexuality to their children, and yet they were forcing me to explain something far worse to my child: how fear and hate can drive us apart. Love, I realized, is easy to explain to children. Discrimination, on the other hand, is virtually impossible.
On our way home that day, we stopped at Marcellos for a slice of pizza. We sat on a bench outside and ate, watching the movie crew take down the wreckage of the play-riot.
Why are they making a movie here, Daddy? Liko asked.
Because something important happened in your neighborhood, I said. People like Harvey Milk worked together to make the world a better place.
How is it better?
I paused again. Was America, in fact, a better place than it had been in Harvey Milks time? Images flickered through my mind, of wars and strife and falling wages and rising unemployment and all the stupid things Ive seen and heard in the media in my three and a half decades of life. I asked myself: What mattered most?
After a moment, I came up with an answer. Its better because back in old-fashioned days, some people were allowed to fall in love and other people werent. Whenever you increase the amount of love in the world, Liko, it becomes a better place.
That week my family joined Jackie, Jessica, and Ezra in marching against Proposition 8. This time, I didnt need to explain anything to Liko; he just knew that we as a family were there to support his friend and his friends moms. Then in November 2008, voters passed Proposition 8, which was devastating to Jackie and Jessica’s friends and familymany of us, we later recalled, wept on hearing the newsand yet most felt that something had started that would prove unstoppable in the long run.
I was very disappointed when Prop 8 passed, Jessicas mother, Elizabeth, told me. Jessica was depending on being able to live a legal married life with Jackie, and Prop 8 was so upsetting. But somehow I dont think its over yet. I think its just going to take awhile for this culture to get used to the idea.
When I look at my son, I know Elizabeth is right. To him, marriage is an institution that includes everyone, his parents as well as Ezras parents. Hell never know any other way of life. As a dad, Im proud that hes been raised that way. And I hope that when he and Ezra come of age, theyll continue this struggle to expand the amount of freedom and love in the world.