Life at the Margins: Reflections on Oppression
Part 2: Past the Borders of Familiarity
This is the second of five essays I am writing in cooperation with Pridebuzz.com. If you haven’t had a chance to read the first installment, I would advise you to do so for some context on this piece.
Where we left off last time, I had just married my husband, and we were really just settling into the new, legal reality that we were hitched. It’s bizarre to say, but even though we had been together already for five years, marriage really did sort of change things. A formality settled in; a new awareness of our personal ticks and our daily routine. It didn’t make me angry or upset; I was more amused with the difference in my awareness. At first. But whatever. A husband is the person who annoys you the best, right? In that case, we are both perfect for each other.
We (read: I) planned the wedding ourselves, and looked for a good spot in a boathouse, at the foot of a mountain, for a reasonable price. We went easy on the flowers. We hired our two friends, seriously talented semi-professional photographers and generally awesome people to take the photos, and hired someone we knew, and someone we knew would work for a discount, for the video. We didn’t cheat them, but we didn’t pay the usual “oh, this is for a wedding?” rates either. We kept the guest list, hmm.. let’s say “intimate.” (Side note: I’m not that sorry, cousins and miscellaneous family. I invited those people I truly wanted/needed there, and I didn’t make all of our parents have ten thousand children each. There are too many of you, and we wanted an open bar, so we made some judgment calls. The venue was only coded for like 100 people. Other excuses that avoid telling you directly that, for whatever reason(s), you didn’t make the cut. No hard feelings?) We both wanted a nice vacation in the form of our honeymoon, so we kept the wedding costs as low as we could.
Paris was lovely, and we came back well-tired, but glad for having gone, and for having met some friends in person whom we’d initially met online. One of the pair of gents is a professional chef, and the food we ate that night was the best we had in all of our stay. We had taken on quite a bit of debt, because we had needed to fund the wedding and honeymoon ourselves, but it was well worth it, and we reasoned that credit cards are for living beyond your means anyway, so we might as well enjoy the experience before settling into the monthly payments.
Most amazing of all, as a wedding gift we were given a second honeymoon from an incredible, generous, lovely and amazing friend. She sent us to Japan for several days, with the plan being for us to spend a day in Tokyo, and then take the Shinkansen and spend the rest of our trip in lovely Kyoto. She paid for literally the whole trip except food and incidentals, and we are forever grateful to her.
A couple days into the trip, though, I received news from an aunt. My cousin across the sea, in the UK, was having some difficulty and was losing custody of her newborn child. To be honest, it’s not such a bad thing that she wasn’t allowed to keep the baby. Some are meant for parenthood. My cousin really isn’t one of them. Not yet, certainly. She’s too young, and too irresponsible, and too much of a lot of things.
Well, we were asked if we wanted to adopt. I had already realized, in a vague sense, I could become a parent, and in truth it was a lifelong dream. I spent most of my life thinking it would only ever be a dream, or else a nightmare because of the sham that would go into allowing it. But here was an honest way to help a family member and become parents. We were into the idea, and so even before we were on our way back from lovely Japan, I was beginning to chase down information on the process.
In most relationships, there is a substantive person and a progressive person. My husband is very happy to help keep things going smoothly in our everyday lives (our finances would be a Lovecraftian hellscape were he not at the helm.), and it is usually up to me to pitch the big ideas and turn the pages into chapters. He enables my attempts, and so we generally manage to meet our goals.
Well, Vermont is a desolate place for LGBT couples. There were only two Hague-accredited adoption agencies operating on behalf of Vermont couples, and our adoption needed to be handled by such an agency in order to adopt from the UK. Of those two agencies, one is faith-based and so the phone call ended quickly after they asked for my wife’s name. The other technically also doesn’t facilitate same-sex international adoptions due to the various laws in so many countries, but since it was the UK and we had a particular child in mind, they were willing to help.
Unfortunately, that process didn’t work out. We had to make the decision that we couldn’t be the best home for my infant cousin, and we had to withdraw from pursuing it. I won’t say why for many reasons, but I will say that I cried bitter tears. I knew we had done the right thing in keeping the baby from remaining in our family, and I knew we were ready to be parents because we had done what seemed impossible; we had set our personal desires to bring this child into our home aside, and put her first. Sadly, that was probably the first time a family member had ever put her needs ahead of their own. She has since been adopted, and I truly hope and trust that she is growing up to be happy and healthy.
We had stepped away from that possibility, but there was no calling the horse back to the stable. We continued in the homestudy process, and attended the required seminars, read the required books, performed the required checks, and interviews, and tests. We were counseled early in the adoption process of the likelihood that our child would be a child of color. At first, being so unused to thinking about race in my daily life, I and we really didn’t think anything of it. As we continued our pre-adoption education, those feelings shifted into fear and anxiety for a few reasons.
One, we heard from so many (white) people that people of color are more homophobic than white people. I mean, after twenty-some years as a white gay man, I admit I found this hard to believe in some respects. I didn’t know, certainly. But I suspected, given just how homophobic white people are, that it would be nigh impossible for any other group to be more homophobic.
But, again. I didn’t know. I personally knew some people of color of various races and backgrounds, and they had no issue with me being gay. I knew many white people, and plenty of them took issue with gay people generally, and some of them with this gay person particularly. So I made a rookie mistake. I googled it. “African American homophobia” turned up so much anecdotal evidence. I grew panicked. Of course, Google’s reach is vast and it is good at finding relevant content, so I had unfortunately stumbled upon too much. My natural anxiety and feelings of self-doubt rose. I heard from black social workers raising very good points about why it can be harmful for white people to raise children of color. Really, what did I know about racism? What did I know about life as a person of color in “post-racial” America? I saw videos from southern preachers talking to large congregations about how homosexuals are perverted and lost; confused. And I heard from amateur historians talking about sissification efforts — which was a real thing, by the way, and was a terrible and emasculating practice. Really, it was depraved of moral conscience. This seemed to me to be plenty of of hatred toward hate gay people, or at least toward gayness itself.
So my hopes were somewhat dampened. I had initially thought that, apples to starfruit, there were some, hopefully enough, similarities in our forms of oppression that homophobia wouldn’t be such an issue. The completely human truth, as always, was more complicated than that.
I was scared. What if they all chose others because they didn’t want their child to be raised by two gay men living in the cold northern mountains somewhere. I knew Vermont was incredibly white, and that any parents putting a child of color up for adoption would not be locals; how could they know that the rumors floating around the country weren’t true, and that we weren’t perverts looking to recruit their child to our glitterful army? How could they know that the summers on Lake Champlain are truly lovely? Or that the mountains were a glorious warm-hued collage in the Autumn, with the leaves of these trees forming the coppery, red scales, and the hills forming the irregular back of some deep-slumbering, giant wyrm? How could they know that we are good people, despite that we are gay? That somehow, despite what might condemn us to hell, but which must surely condemn us on earth, we had managed to become good people. That there were no nefarious machinations, simply room in our home and our hearts for a child, and that we wanted to experience that joy and help raise a child to find their footing in a too-unforgiving world?
Well, internal fears aside, and very much sooner rather than later, we got a few phone calls and after one or two other missed connections with destiny, we were chosen. We were so nervous, so excited, we could barely speak. My emotions were spilling over with the knowledge our dream was so quickly becoming a reality. It was overwhelming.
Unfortunately, we were not able to meet our very-soon-to-be son’s parents. They had initially seemed interested but decided not to meet with us at the last minute. To be honest, that makes sense to me. Life can be difficult and I am sure that it was not with joyful hearts that they gave their child, now our child, over into our family and our lives, and in very real ways, out of theirs. I don’t know that I would be able to meet the adoptive parents of a child I found myself in need of giving up for adoption, and I would never want to speak blindly toward their experience. Other birth parents, from what we have read and seen in materials over the course of our adoption journey, have run the gamut on feelings after their child has been placed and adopted, so I couldn’t even speculate, though I would love to know.
But I was afraid because even though we had been chosen, really, what did we know about raising a child of color, and how could we consider raising him in such a white area, knowing what we knew of the surrounding, prevailing, colloquial, and parochial racism?
And then he was being brought into the room. And then he was being unbuckled from his car seat. And then he was crying, gently, as he was gently wrapped in his personal, home-made, crocheted blanket. And then he was being handed to us; to me, specifically. And then I took him, so small, into my arms for the first time, nervously, and brought him up to my shoulder. And then with a little sigh, he rested his head against my neck, and fell fast asleep. And then my heart broke, and melted, and a part of it flowed out from my body to live, instantly and forever, inside this little, perfect, brown angel. Some moments in time seem to pass so quickly. And some seem to crystallize and be part of us forever, with a little part of us locked in that moment. And sometimes, as in this instance, both of those things happen at once.
The unfortunate surrounding reality, though, was that, though we lived in one of the most diverse areas of Vermont (which is saying almost literally nothing), and we were far too tired with the joys and demands of fresh fatherhood to even consider moving right at that time, we needed to be thinking about it. It was not imminent; we still had our post-placement visits, and shortly after taking our baby home, we learned he has a minor neurological condition. We started PT and OT immediately, I extended my time away from my full-time role as a developer in favor of spending those first, fast, precious months at home with bébé. I could never regret that special bonding time, as he became more acquainted with the world, and I became more acquainted with my new world.
Almost immediately after placement, within the first few months at the very least, I was harassed by that cousin across the pond, who was insulted that we had not adopted her child, and had instead adopted a, well, I won’t repeat what she said after that point. As I mentioned before, she’s too much of a lot of things. I told her where her opinion belonged, and cut out the first racist. We had never been close, fortunately, because she had been raised across an ocean from me, and I refused to acknowledge her as a loss. My child, and breathing life into him, was my priority. Anyone who stood against that mission had to go. Period. Parenthood is funny like that; priorities shift around a lot, and I think all new parents lose some non-parent friends. We certainly did, but had been counseled to expect it and so we weren’t taken by surprise. I had hoped that racism wouldn’t actually become part of our actual reality. The completely human truth, as always, was more complicated than that. We encountered the casual racism of our practicing newborn being asked if he would play basketball or football. We were congratulated on our incredible magnanimity for being, bless us, so good-hearted that we would even bring a child of color into our family. We stopped others from fawning over him like an exotic plaything. We heard people casually condemn the woman and mother who had enabled us to bring our baby into our family. They would condemn her and expect me to heap on abuse, but I couldn’t do it. I am simply grateful to her for setting herself aside in the knowledge she wanted more for her baby than she could offer. I am grateful that she chose us, that she put her faith in us. And I am not going to waste time pretending to condemn her when I should be living up to the faith she put in me to raise her child to succeed and be happy in this world. She is a mother, and I know in my heart that this is what she wants for her baby. I intend to honor that wish.
So, in short, Vermont and Burlington (Bernie Sanders’s hometown or not), were over.
It was time to move on to more diverse pastures. I wasn’t and am not close to my family, and most of my husband’s family live across Massachusetts, so we went to our south, landing just west of Boston (which I have, for the record, never called Beantown, having been cautioned before arriving. This was, incidentally, also how I came to know it was ever called “Beantown.). The areas I looked first for an apartment, were areas where I found low crime stats, and where I was able to observe that the area was fairly quiet. We place we finally chose was both racially and ethnically fairly diverse, was urban (which was different in a nice way after rural and then rural-urban Vermont), and I was into it. We signed a lease and moved in.
The fears I had come to harbor about being a white, gay parent of a young black male were not insubstantial, and in white Burlington they had grown larger, like a marshmallow in a vacuum chamber. I continued my efforts to consume media by and about people of color so I could educate myself as best I could, as an outsider, to the problems my son would face, as an insider. And I started to make an effort to connect with people of color and ensure that my son would be able to have their presence throughout his life, as every seminar, class, book, online course and pamphlet had recommended. It has been rich and rewarding.
As I have come to interact with and know people of color, and have continued to have conversations with, and consume the media of people whose life experiences are at once so like and so unlike my own, I have come to a greater peace in myself as a person and as a parent. The things I have seen have helped settle my spirit and assuage my fears (and foster other fears), and have bolstered my confidence as a parent. The first year was really a learning experience, and I will talk about it at length in the next installment.
There were many tears, and so many were from the two grown babies. And there was a lot of laughter, and joy, and uncertainty, and so many affirmations in the bathroom mirror.
But that will have to wait for next week. Thanks for making it through this one, and I hope you’ll be back again. Meanwhile, you can be in touch via social media (links around the page), as well as by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can drop us a line at the Contact or Survey pages. Thanks again!
Stay engaged and stay woke,