I first noticed the family values patter in the mid-eighties, I think. Perhaps you were too young then to remember that in the beginning it seemed as if old men in suits and color-blind women were speaking in tongues on national television. There was a recession on. I had a small child, two minimum wage jobs and a boyfriend who kept a meat cleaver in his trunk. When I would occasionally run past a TV it was because the space shuttle blew up or because late-night Ben Casey made my harrowing existence a little less harrowing for an hour, so it took a little while for these throwbacks to cross my field of vision.
The life I was busy having was no laughing matter – at the time. After my two jobs I was taking a basic wiring class at the Middlesex County VoTech with electricians’ apprentices from a couple of IBEW locals. When the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local for my town held its annual “One of us…one of us…” drive, there were three openings. I aced their exam because back then my brain still went ZOT! on cue. It was an exciting time! Then came the interview. I expected the electricians to – as people did – marvel at my work ethic and stellar I.Q. Instead, the interview proved a shock – no pun intended. One of the interviewers said these actual words to me. I forget my phone number, but I remember this:
IBEW Brother: Why should we give you a job and take one away from a man supporting a family?
Tata: Because I’m the single parent of a family no man is supporting.
No, I didn’t get the job, so I moved to Perth Amboy and applied to a different IBEW, hoping they weren’t all filled with mouthbreathing yahoos. And I was so wrong! It was at this point I gave up hope of becoming an electrician and providing a decent life for myself and my daughter. I became the bad university secretary who would hang up on you. I still had no money but I was at home nights when the TV was on. Suddenly, Jerry Falwell played a huge part in my life because hating someone with every fiber of your being takes up mondo time and energy. And Reverend Donald Wildmon’s despicable antics occupied more of my waking thought than even my own.
See, nothing, nobody, no power on earth would or will convince me that gays were a threat, or feminists were evil, the homeless wanted to be homeless, starving children deserved to starve, Communists were the tool of Satan, or any of that other shit televangelists shoveled. Being born beige and middle class in modern America is nothing other than a cosmic accident, and from this position of tremendous fucking privilege it is my obligation to minimize suffering caused by my presence in the world by not acting like a soulless, selfish bastard who doesn’t care who she hurts to get her way. I am not a nice person and sometimes I’ve lived closer to this modest ideal than others; however, dating married men is not morally stinky on the same order of magnitude as goading your followers to blockade and firebomb women’s clinics, or failing to prevent it.
This is the gap between intention and action: the harm factor. In the eighties, our Catholic and evangelical leaders failed to observe or lament the suffering they caused and from there, it’s only gotten worse. It is as if, drunk with power, they forgot that laying down the law is not the same as shepherding the flock. It’s sad, really. One neglected idea at the very bottom of their common philosophy is not a bad one: it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we could raise children to be secure, smart adults – possibly, they shouldn’t be selfish bastards, either.
But rhetoric took off and riot was incited and passions remain inflamed and all reason is lost. I can’t even look at their faces anymore without feeling as if I’ve been suckerpunched and forced to spend the last twenty years of my life defending the simple notion that free people should be free, and – I’m terribly sorry – the family is not the be-all and end-all these bigots make out as long as the family rejects some of its members for being gay, or poor, or HIV-positive, or independent women, or of a different belief-set. I am officially sick of hearing about the family, about family values and about my role in the family. I don’t want to hear another religious figure tell me our society is corrupting its youth. The reason I and others can say this?
According to the 1990 and 2000 Census and as reported by the Wall Street Journal, the nuclear family is no longer our most common living arrangement. The Journal’s take on this change in American life is pathetic and sentimental. Somehow, it suggests, we drifted away from the thing that offers strength and companionship. What the Journal fails to note is that living in nuclear family structures is often extremely uncomfortable. Family is the problem you’re stuck with until you construct your own family solution. In my case, I live alone or with a lover, whichever! My friends are my family in the absence of a more conventional household. The prospect of someday being unable to care for myself and relying on Miss Sasha – however scrumptious she may be – fills me with a desire to eat day-old sushi on a hot day. With mayo. My family may take offense and that’s their right, but feelings are facts, and the fact is I will never live in a male-dominated structure that includes children. I won’t miss it a bit.
So. About family movies, family meals, family values, family entertainment, family trips, family television, family anything else: stow it. The family unit turned on itself in the eighties and proved a fragile, unbending structure. It snapped, despite all the rhetoric and damage to individuals and stifling oppression. Now whose fault is that?