Friday, June 24, 2011
American Family Values, Invisible Lives
By Sikivu Hutchinson
A recent Los Angeles Times story about the U.S. Census’ report on the changing demographics of California families opens with an idyllic portrait of a white lesbian-headed family whose daughter is asked “on a leafy drive…at a newly renovated home with cathedral ceilings and a backyard pool” why she has three mommies. According to the new data, families are increasingly becoming less nuclear, headed up by more single parents, childless couples and LGBT couples with children. Yet family diversity is only a revelation in the mainstream media, which continue to promote the model of nuclear family-hood, even if it is provisionally embodied by well-heeled white gay partners with photogenic children. Historically, families of color have always been diverse. Extended African American family networks of adult caregivers, gay and straight, related and un-related, have always contributed to childrearing. Extended family provided a bulwark against institutional racism and segregation. Thus, the Times’ snapshot of affluent comfort contrasts with the realities of many LGBT families of color who struggle to stay above the poverty line. Further, the depiction of white childrearing and parenting as the de facto norm contributes to the national narrative that non-traditional families of color can never represent an authentic model of family.
In reality, the numbers of LGBT families of color are increasing, especially in traditionally conservative regions like the South, which has seen a new black “re-migration” due to the massive ripple effect of job losses, foreclosures and gentrification in northern urban black communities. Nonetheless, when textbooks, TV shows, and Hollywood films envision culturally “diverse” LGBT families it is through the lens of privileged white middle class folk who have “benevolently” decided to adopt a child of color or used expensive reproductive technology to have children. Complex families of color that are either headed by single gay or straight parents are marginalized as inherently dysfunctional, welfare-dependent and socially borderline. Loving gay partners of color with children are virtually nonexistent.
This media white-out has insidious implications for both straight and gay children of color. If gay children of color don’t see loving adult gay and lesbian caregivers then they will continue to internalize their own dehumanization. If straight children of color don’t see loving representations of LGBT parents and families of color, gayness will still be equated with “white” deviance. Next week, the California State Assembly will vote on a bill requiring that the contributions of LGBT communities and historical figures be taught in K-12 classrooms. Clearly, the invisibility of LGBT families of color not only reinforces homophobic opposition to LBGT equality within African American communities, but validates the absence of public policy that specifically addresses LGBT youth of color issues.
For example, nationwide, increasing numbers of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning) youth of color are becoming homeless due to overt anti-gay harassment, emotional/physical abuse and lack of acceptance by their families and communities. In my work with LGBTQ homeless youth in Los Angeles, some recount being forced to leave home due to the kind of violent scenarios satirized in comedian Tracy Morgan’s now infamous homophobic rant. Morgan’s diatribe about the prospect of a son coming out as gay enacted a shopworn stereotype about straight male socialization. It is a given that no self-respecting father, particularly a black father, would want his son to be gay. It is a given that masculinity must be rigidly policed by the fraternity of men. Thus, the only reasonable response to a young black man coming out would be violence. Morgan’s vitriol illustrated how gender identity and sexuality are intertwined. But it also highlighted the deep connection between normative gender identities, race and family roles. Black heterosexism is reinforced by white supremacy. White supremacy establishes a hierarchy of men in which non-white men are either feminized or hyper-masculinized. The social capital of white men lies in being the universal ideal of humanity; requiring men of color to be the super-macho other. For men of color, violent hard masculinity is the only kind of masculinity that is validated by the dominant culture. As the national propaganda goes, caring, emotionally present black fathers—single or partnered—are an oxymoron. According to this mythology, all black boys take their cue from this deficit model and the hyper-masculine cycle of violence repeats itself in crime and illegitimacy.
With African American children comprising nearly 40% of the nation’s foster care and homeless youth populations, culturally responsive feminist approaches to caregiving and family sustainability are crucial. Living in a culture in which they are reminded daily of their non-existence by a white supremacist heterosexist nation that deifies straight white beauty ideals and views affordable housing as a privilege, some LGBT homeless youth of color resort to destructive behaviors like survival sex and drug abuse. Demographic patterns have long shifted to make whites a minority in the U.S. Yet mainstream media is still in the Ozzie and Harriet era when it comes to the realities of families of color, buttressing bankrupt social welfare policies that expose the sham of American family values.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.