Sunday's gay march: Family values on parade

Robert A. Bernstein

April 19, 1993|By Robert A. Bernstein

THIS Sunday, supporters of gay rights are expected to converge on Washington for one of the largest demonstrations in the nation's history. As I await the event, and recall earlier marches in which I have participated with other parents of gay children, I am reminded once again of society's upside-down notions about the relationship between homosexuality and "family values."

The latest flurry of misguided moralism was touched off by a popular comic strip in which a teen-age character reveals his homosexuality to his best friend. At last count, 17 shocked newspapers have canceled the strip.

As one of the censors put it, his is a "family newspaper," and the subject matter therefore is "inappropriate."

Another, with unwitting and ironic accuracy, objected that the episode constitutes "advocacy." Well, so it does. But what it advocates is some pretty wholesome family values -- things like integrity, trust and respect for others. In the words of strip creator Lynn Johnston, it's about "all [of us] being more open and honest."

In her strip, "For Better or For Worse," the gay character is 17-year-old Lawrence Poirier. At this writing, it remains to be seen how Lawrence's parents will react to his being gay. But unless they're atypical parents in a profoundly homophobic society, they'll be, at least initially, devastated.

So I have a suggestion to help the elder Poiriers reconcile their family values with their son's sexual orientation. They should join our parents' group, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (or P-FLAG), in a gay pride parade. Better still, they could come to Washington Sunday.

At any such event, the inevitable thunderous ovation for marching parents speaks eloquently of the importance of family values to young lesbians and gay men. And the thunder is always accompanied by a flood of tears that speak directly to the same point. For they well up out of a vast void in the hearts of those who have been rejected, or otherwise inadequately supported, by their own families.

My own commitment to the movement dates to the last march on Washington in October 1987. My daughter had "come out" to her family just a few months earlier. None of us had ever taken part in any kind of demonstration. But we had found our way to a few P-FLAG meetings, where we heard about the march. Her mother and I decided to participate, solely as a token of support for our daughter.

As first-time paraders, we were unprepared for the tumultuous response accorded marching parents. So we were at first frightened, then astonished and finally choked up, by the roaring crescendoes that greeted us all the way along Pennsylvania Avenue. By their near-deafening ovation, some half-million young people were saying to our relatively tiny band of a few hundred oldsters, "Thanks for standing in for our own parents."

When it was over, I knew my life had changed. I had a cause. And it was one that could best be described -- with due apology to editorial moralists aggrieved at a gay comic strip character -- by the simple phrase "family values." The cause, in short, is to see fewer families needlessly shattered by mindless prejudice.

So I would invite the fictional Poiriers, and all real-life parents of gay kids, to march with P-FLAG Sunday. I can now predict, from my bittersweet memories of that 1987 march and later gay pride parades, much of what they will see and hear.

I remember the young women who ran sobbing from the curbside crowd to hug my wife, crying, "I wish my mom was here."

I remember the young men and women who have asked the P-FLAG marchers to move more slowly because "I want a picture to send to my folks."

I remember being startled by a muscular, leather-clad woman who pointed her finger at me and shouted menacingly, "You!" And then added more softly, "Thank you!"

Some of those "family newspapers," of course, would editorialize that it is I who should be ashamed, for espousing "inappropriate" ideas. Still, I'll stick with the stubborn minority who insist that love, not hate or fear, is the primary family value.

Robert A. Bernstein, a retired Justice Department lawyer, writes from Bethesda.

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