Daddy’s Day at Charlie’s church-based preschool class. The man who plays the title role in our grandson’s life can’t get off work for the hour-long program. Dave and I shoulder grandfatherly duties and attend in his stead. Charlie’s mom ushers us to the classroom door, chats briefly with the teacher, then leaves. Charlie takes over from there.
“This is my Papa,” the four-year-old says, pointing to Dave. He turns to me. “And this is my Iso Papa.”
The teacher laughs. “Your evil papa?”
Charlie looks daggers at her. “EESO-Papa,” he says, and leads us over to a stack of wooden blocks.
Maybe the teacher spoke her truth in referring to me as Evil Papa. Later she makes an elaborate point of there being a “special friend” in the room. She uses her voice to draw quotes around the term.
“Children, you may ask your father or grandfather or ‘special friend’ to join you at the craft table.” “Boys and girls, I want you to sing your best for your father or grandfather or ‘special friend.’” “Students, you may now offer your father or grandfather or ‘special friend’ a half-doughnut and glass of juice.”
I seethe with anger. Does it matter that she and others locate me outside the family? Label gay people as wicked? Feign inclusivity? Broadcast such messages to four- and five-year-olds?
Sure, it does.
Even before they’re taught to use the potty, children receive training in societal prejudice, gender expectations and roles. I learned at a young age to despise a deep part of myself. I’m coming to realize a lifetime is too short for me and others to undo all those early lessons.
Not that we should quit trying.
Since July, Dave and I have frequented a local film club. We’re the young ones in a crowd of 15 or 20 who gather once a month to watch old-time Western movies. At the club’s 38th anniversary celebration this fall we learned they’ve cancelled meetings only twice—once for the blizzard of 1977 and again for the blizzard of 2014.
Last month we decided to ante up the annual dues, only $10 per person or couple. We approached the treasurer, an amiable white-haired man of short stature and warm smile, and told him we wanted to become official members.
“Do you have change for a twenty?” Dave asked.
“Um, it’s $10 per person.”
“Not $10 per couple?”
“Well, are you two brothers?”
“We’re married, actually,” Dave said.
A bystander chortled loudly, then flushed when neither Dave nor I laughed. He quickly retired to his seat.
The treasurer checked his wallet and waved us off. “I don’t have change.” He, too, beat a hasty retreat.
“That was a conversation stopper,” Dave whispered.
I nodded. “You sure know how to clear a room.”
We talked about it on the drive home, how Indiana’s marriage equality played a role in our actions. “I’m feeling bolder,” Dave said. “More ready to publicly claim you as my husband.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Most of the time. Not the other night at that new theatre. You dropped me off at the door. The usher wanted to seat me. I told the her I was waiting on another person. When you came in she asked, ‘Is this your friend?’ I didn’t correct her. I could have said, ‘He’s my husband.’ But I was in new territory, didn’t feel safe. I kept mum.”
Maybe this happens to others, too—the club treasurer, the preschool teacher, my evangelical pastor brother, my deceased mother, my children. Marriage equality is new territory for them, may feel unsafe, scary. I want them to get over it. Buck up, duck. If our conservative state legislators have to accord me the dignity of marriage, you should, too.
But it may a hard pill for them to swallow. Maybe instead of scorn I can offer a glass of water. While still holding them accountable to treat me with respect, I can offer grace instead of judgment. After all, I’m asking the same of them. For me and my special friend. For every last one of my grandchildren. And theirs.