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The Institution of Marriage and What It Means to Protect our Children

The Institution of Marriage and What It Means to Protect our Children

Writer Shannon Connolly, who's spending the year abroad in Paris, responds to Prop. 8's passage: To those who voted 'Yes on Prop 8', let me tell you something. I was a child once. No one told me what it meant to be gay. No one told me that the word 'family' can have many different meanings and manifestations.

In a country where the divorce rate is higher than 50 percent, neither my parents nor either sets of my grandparents have experienced failed marriages. I was raised with not one, but three examples of lasting, committed, traditional marriage. And I am proud of that.

I am proud that my childhood memories include watching my parents greet each other with a kiss in the kitchen every morning before we went to school. I am proud that every phone call I have heard between my parents has ended with “I love you.” Even the simplest ones. Even, “Hey, I’m going to the store, I was calling to see if you need anything,” has always been responded to with, “Nope, don’t need anything. I love you. See you later.”

My parents’ love for one another throughout my life has been as open as it has been strong. They have provided an impressive foundation for their three children -- of whom I am the oldest -- to understand what it means to be in a relationship, what it means to love someone. They have often told me and my sister and brother that nothing in the world has made them happier than being married to one another and creating a family together. Nothing in the world.

Last year, home for the summer holiday and celebrating the 80th birthday of my grandfather, I witnessed another side to all of this, another side to what it means to be married and what it means to be unmarried. Of his seven children, my grandfather has four that have been with the same person for longer than 10 years. An impressive accomplishment. Relationships to be admired.

My Uncle John has been with Aunt Chris for more than 20 years. Aunt Sheila has been with Uncle Jim for more than 20 years. My parents have been together for 22 years. And Aunt Eileen has been with Linda for 10 years. Three of these relationships are recognized by the word “marriage,” the fourth is not. And as I stood on a large country club patio in the suburbs of Pennsylvania last summer, the sun setting in the distance, I gathered with my extended family for the requisite family photograph. And we all stood together, in our cocktail dresses and suits, draping our arms around one another, smiling, posing, ready to capture the image of this healthy, ever-growing group. And as we stood there, I heard my grandmother’s voice rise above the others:

“Linda, will you take the family photograph for us?”

She held a camera in her outstretched hand. And my heart split in two. And I wanted to scream. I watched Linda take the camera from her without a word. She was gracious, she did not argue, she did not even show the betrayal on her face. And no one said anything. I said nothing.

My grandmother is an old woman. She may not see what is right in front of her eyes. She does not see that the “friend” her grown daughter has brought to every holiday for the past 10 years is really a partner, is really a spouse. And my grandmother does not understand this because, as I said, she is an old woman. She understands tradition and institutions, and as of now, there is no legal word for what Linda and Eileen are. And so, she does not think twice about handing Linda a camera at a family party. Linda has been a part of our family for as long as I can remember, in every sense but the legal one. And that makes a difference.

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Marriage was not protected on Election Day. That is a lie. The only thing that has been accomplished is that countless relationships that are successful and committed and loving will not be granted the respect they deserve. Gay and lesbian couples will continue to be together. They will continue to create families together. And what was accomplished today was that the children of those couples will be forced to question why the relationships between their parents are not recognized the same way as the relationships between their friends’ and classmates’ parents.

The ‘Yes on 8’ campaign was built on fear. A great number of people who voted ‘Yes on 8’are afraid their children will be taught about gay people in school. Believe it or not, whether schools teach children that there are different types of people and different types of families in this world, they will learn about it. They will learn through experience -- through the little girl in their class who has two moms, through the boy in their high school who will be brave enough to come out at a young age. They think they are protecting your children by not telling them what it means to be gay.

To those who voted Yes on Prop 8, let me tell you something. I was a child once. No one told me what is meant to be gay. No one told me that the word “family” can have many different meanings and manifestations. All I knew was that the word “gay” was said in whispers. All I knew was that I had an unmarried aunt who brought her female friend to family parties, and that no one talked about it.

And when I was 12 and I thought for the first time that the whispered word might apply to me, the general silence on the topic silenced me. And for six years I suffered in silence -- without a role model, without an education about the strange feelings I was having. And it was only at 18, after having taught MYSELF what it meant to be gay, that I decided I would make a choice between a permanent silence -- suicide -- and coming out. And so I came out. I never chose to be gay. I just chose to tell people.

There are children in classrooms in California whom you think you are protecting by not telling them what it means to be gay. Children who have been listening closely to their parents during this election season. Children who know that their parents voted ‘Yes on 8.’ Children who will forever remember that. Some of those same children whom you think you are protecting will grow up to be gay or lesbian. And that will happen whether you teach them what it means to be gay or not. And the decision made concerning Prop 8 just made their struggle more difficult. You just sent those young people the message that their future relationships will not have the significance of the relationships they have witnessed between their parents and their aunts and uncles.

But I will not stand for this country raising bigots or promoting ignorance. You are not protecting your children. You are scaring your children. You are telling them that to be different is wrong, even if they were simply born different. Even if they never asked for it. And let me tell you, none of us asked for this. We’re just trying to live.

This fight is not over. And mark my words, by the time I am ready to get married, I will be able to legally marry in the state of California. And it will be legalized, even if I have to change 400,000 opinions myself.

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Shannon Connolly