Recently, the following video has been running rampant all over the Internet:
I’m going to start by acknowledging how important what Mr. Wahls did is. Speaking up for your family in an articulate manner, especially to a legislative body that is considering whether or not to recognize your family at all, is a challenging thing to do. It takes courage and the belief that what you’re doing is more important than how nervous or afraid you might be. Being an ally for any given cause takes a particular kind of courage- the strength to Do The Right Thing- because you’ve always got the privilege of pretending that an issue doesn’t pertain to you. I’ll also acknowledge that when a movement is trying to achieve a controversial goal- in this case, the recognition of same-sex marriages- trying to find common, nonthreatening ground is a completely reasonable strategy. The less your opposition can criticize you, the easier it is to get what you want. So using an all-American, high-achieving, White, educated young cis man as a spokesperson for same-sex marriage in a socially conservative state seems very wise and effective.
That being said…
What does that say about our (in this case, Americans’) social expectations and categorizations of worthy or unworthy? If it takes someone who’s close to perfect to convince people that same-sex marriage isn’t the end of existence, then what does that mean for all the parents out there- same-sex or otherwise- whose children aren’t close to perfect? Are they failures as parents? Are they the reason the Iowa legislature wasn’t willing to recognize same-sex relationships? Are they not permitted to marry? I get the feeling that heterosexual couples raising children will never have to hold their model children up as proof that their relationship is legitimate. In fact, I get the feeling that a heterosexual couple asked to do so would get pretty snarky, particularly since it’s a commonly-accepted fact in American heterosexual families that- even when parents are good parents- children can be really screwed up. The underlying message of Mr. Wahls’ appearance in the state legislature- not one intended to be communicated by him, I’m sure, but one that Americans tend to generate and receive whenever social controversy comes up- is that same-sex parents have to produce perfect children in order to legitimize their relationship. They can’t afford to have messed-up children- in other words, they can’t be human parents.
This is a common theme throughout American social movements. The early first-wave feminists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries used the “model spokesperson” tactic by asking that their demonstrators wear perfect clothes and use perfect comportment (besides chaining themselves to buildings, of course) to appeal to the sympathies of the men wielding electoral power. Civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s were instructed to use passive resistance so as to minimize opponents’ opportunities to paint the protestors as violent, dangerous people. Spokespeople for social assistance programs such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families are usually the ones who have managed to make superhuman efforts (living on less-than-minimum wage while raising five academically talented children in the ghetto, for example) to survive. As I said earlier, for the opponents to any of these movements or programs, such representatives are much harder to hate than the ones that can be labeled as “unworthy” in any way (in these examples, in order, unfeminine, violent, or lazy).
The problem is that human rights are rights for a reason. You shouldn’t have to be superhuman, uberfeminine, or a living punching bag to feed your family, cast a vote, or be treated like a person. You shouldn’t have to be a “model” anything to be assessed as a person or as a parent. Permitting same-sex marriage and parenting, to go back to Mr. Wahls’ address, shouldn’t be based on whether your children could run a Fortune 500 company immediately after high school. Permitting same-sex marriage and parenting shouldn’t be based on anything that’s related to the sexes and genders of the people involved. We don’t generally assess parenting by whether or not the children are the product of a heterosexual marriage; when we do, we’re more concerned with the (gender-neutral) aspects of the marriage such as violence or a high-conflict divorce than whether or not both parties had specific sets of genitalia. And when we assess heterosexual marriage, period, we care about genetics (i.e. “are you first cousins?”) more than any other category. It’s only with the subgroups that spokespeople must be as nonthreatening as possible.
Part of the point of social movements is that they do threaten the social order because the current social order (minimal enfranchisement, subhuman treatment, a starving family) is unjust. Social movements, by nature, seek to change that. The subterfuge of “this spokesperson is clearly not a threat to us!” is at best simply concealing the reality that a new social order will change the way the “us” category is compelled to treat a given group of people; at worst, it sends the message that the “us” group can use this model spokesperson as the ruler by which all other members of that group will be measured. When our standards are that high, a vast number of people is set up to fail simply because they’re not superheroes. By definition, superheroes are extraordinary. How is it in any way fair to judge an entire group of people by their exceptional members?
I genuinely appreciate Mr. Wahls’ contributions to getting Iowa to recognize same-sex relationships, and I applaud his parents for raising a successful child (no mean feat!). But I do question why it is we require our downtrodden, our unrecognized, our oppressed to meet extremely high criteria in order to be awarded basic rights and recognition.