Andrew Solomon: Love, no matter what (1)
"Even in purely non-religious terms, homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty.
It is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality -- a pitiable flight from life. As such, it deserves no compassion, it deserves no treatment as minority martyrdom, and it deserves not to be deemed anything but a pernicious sickness. That's from Time magazine in 1966, when I was three years old.
And last year, the president of the United States came out in favor of gay marriage. And my question is, how did we get from there to here?
How did an illness become an identity? When I was perhaps six years old, I went to a shoe store with my mother and my brother.
And at the end of buying our shoes, the salesman said to us that we could each have a balloon to take home. My brother wanted a red balloon, and I wanted a pink balloon. My mother said that she thought I'd really rather have a blue balloon. But I said that I definitely wanted the pink one. And she reminded me that my favorite color was blue. The fact that my favorite color now is blue, but I'm still gay -- (Laughter) -- is evidence of both my mother's influence and its limits. When I was little, my mother used to say, "The love you have for your children is like no other feeling in the world.
And until you have children, you don't know what it's like." And when I was little, I took it as the greatest compliment in the world that she would say that about parenting my brother and me. And when I was an adolescent, I thought that I'm gay, and so I probably can't have a family. And when she said it, it made me anxious. And after I came out of the closet, when she continued to say it, it made me furious. I said, "I'm gay. That's not the direction that I'm headed in. And I want you to stop saying that. About 20 years ago, I was asked by my editors at The New York Times Magazine to write a piece about deaf culture.
And I was rather taken aback. I had thought of deafness entirely as an illness. Those poor people, they couldn't hear. They lacked hearing, and what could we do for them? And then I went out into the deaf world. I went to deaf clubs. I saw performances of deaf theater and of deaf poetry. I even went to the Miss Deaf America contest in Nashville, Tennessee where people complained about that slurry Southern signing. And as I plunged deeper and deeper into the deaf world, I become convinced that deafness was a culture and that the people in the deaf world who said, "We don't lack hearing, we have membership in a culture," were saying something that was viable.
It wasn't my culture, and I didn't particularly want to rush off and join it, but I appreciated that it was a culture and that for the people who were members of it, it felt as valuable as Latino culture or gay culture or Jewish culture. It felt as valid perhaps even as American culture. Then a friend of a friend of mine had a daughter who was a dwarf.
And when her daughter was born, she suddenly found herself confronting questions that now began to seem quite resonant to me. She was facing the question of what to do with this child. Should she say, "You're just like everyone else but a little bit shorter?" Or should she try to construct some kind of dwarf identity, get involved in the Little People of America, become aware of what was happening for dwarfs? And I suddenly thought, most deaf children are born to hearing parents.
Those hearing parents tend to try to cure them. Those deaf people discover community somehow in adolescence. Most gay people are born to straight parents. Those straight parents often want them to function in what they think of as the mainstream world, and those gay people have to discover identity later on. And here was this friend of mine looking at these questions of identity with her dwarf daughter. And I thought, there it is again: A family that perceives itself to be normal with a child who seems to be extraordinary. And I hatched the idea that there are really two kinds of identity. There are vertical identities, which are passed down generationally from parent to child.
Those are things like ethnicity, frequently nationality, language, often religion. Those are things you have in common with your parents and with your children. And while some of them can be difficult, there's no attempt to cure them. You can argue that it's harder in the United States -- our current presidency notwithstanding -- to be a person of color. And yet, we have nobody who is trying to ensure that the next generation of children born to African-Americans and Asians come out with creamy skin and yellow hair. There are these other identities which you have to learn from a peer group.
And I call them horizontal identities, because the peer group is the horizontal experience. These are identities that are alien to your parents and that you have to discover when you get to see them in peers. And those identities, those horizontal identities, people have almost always tried to cure. And I wanted to look at what the process is through which people who have those identities come to a good relationship with them.
And it seemed to me that there were three levels of acceptance that needed to take place. There's self-acceptance, there's family acceptance, and there's social acceptance. And they don't always coincide. And a lot of the time, people who have these conditions are very angry because they feel as though their parents don't love them, when what actually has happened is that their parents don't accept them.
Love is something that ideally is there unconditionally throughout the relationship between a parent and a child. But acceptance is something that takes time. It always takes time. One of the dwarfs I got to know was a guy named Clinton Brown.
When he was born, he was diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism, a very disabling condition, and his parents were told that he would never walk, he would never talk, he would have no intellectual capacity, and he would probably not even recognize them. And it was suggested to them that they leave him at the hospital so that he could die there quietly. And his mother said she wasn't going to do it.
And she took her son home. And even though she didn't have a lot of educational or financial advantages, she found the best doctor in the country for dealing with diastrophic dwarfism, and she got Clinton enrolled with him. And in the course of his childhood, he had 30 major surgical procedures. And he spent all this time stuck in the hospital while he was having those procedures, as a result of which he now can walk. And while he was there, they sent tutors around to help him with his school work.
And he worked very hard because there was nothing else to do. And he ended up achieving at a level that had never before been contemplated by any member of his family. He was the first one in his family, in fact, to go to college, where he lived on campus and drove a specially-fitted car that accommodated his unusual body. And his mother told me this story of coming home one day -- and he went to college nearby -- and she said, "I saw that car, which you can always recognize, in the parking lot of a bar," she said.
(Laughter) "And I thought to myself, they're six feet tall, he's three feet tall. Two beers for them is four beers for him." She said, "I knew I couldn't go in there and interrupt him, but I went home, and I left him eight messages on his cell phone." She said, "And then I thought, if someone had said to me when he was born that my future worry would be that he'd go drinking and driving with his college buddies -- " And I said to her, "What do you think you did that helped him to emerge as this charming, accomplished, wonderful person?
And she said, "What did I do? I loved him, that's all. Clinton just always had that light in him. And his father and I were lucky enough to be the first to see it there. I'm going to quote from another magazine of the '60s.
This one is from 1968 -- The Atlantic Monthly, voice of liberal America -- written by an important bioethicist. He said, "There is no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down syndrome child away, whether it is put away in the sense of hidden in a sanitarium or in a more responsible, lethal sense. It is sad, yes -- dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down's is not a person. There's been a lot of ink given to the enormous progress that we've made in the treatment of gay people.
The fact that our attitude has changed is in the headlines every day. But we forget how we used to see people who had other differences, how we used to see people who were disabled, how inhuman we held people to be. And the change that's been accomplished there, which is almost equally radical, is one that we pay not very much attention to.