There are a lot of public questions that puzzle me—abortion, U.S. military might, welfare—but I have never been much puzzled by gay marriage. In fact, as the rest of the country, particularly my adopted state of Indiana, goes fairly insane on the question, my puzzlement is about why I'm not puzzled: What are all these people getting so exercised about? Personally, I regard marriage the way other people regard extreme sports. Climbing Everest, for example, is a harrowing, sometimes horrifying challenge, and many people don't make it, but I'm not interested in stopping anyone from trying. My attitude is: be my guest. God bless you. Are you going to eat the other half of that sandwich? As far as I'm concerned, anyone who wants to race the Tour de France, whether he's Lance Armstrong or a fat CPA from Akron, deserves his own team and TV show.
Then, a few months ago, I was at my local library with my 2-year-old son. He had dashed toward his favorite space—the combined reading area/Lego playground—and when I caught up to him, I found myself in the company of two men, each about five years younger than me, with two boys, one about 18 months and the other about 4 years old. My son was adopted from Eastern Europe, but I hardly ever mention this anymore. He's so clearly my son. Still, when I see children who, for some reason, don't quite sync with their parents, I have to repress the urge to say, Me too. Me too. Isn't it wonderful? Usually, this happens with Asian children and European parents, but this time it was something else: these guys had that well-groomed-but-not-so-fashionable Midwestern gay thing going on, and the boys themselves were clearly from two different parts of the world. The 18-month-old was dark with fine features like my son, and his older brother looked Central American.
Even saying hello felt awkward. Do these guys think I disapprove of them? But I can't approve of them without calling attention to their situation, which would seem rude and invasive. Maybe I'm just stupid, but I had to imagine my introduction would be something like: "Hey, aren't you a gay couple with two children from different parts of the world? I'm a straight man whose son is from a different part of the world too." Lame. Beyond lame. Supernaturally lame.
I had to let my son play for a while, though, so I said "hi," and they said "hi," and then we talked about how good this library was for about two sentences each until we all fell back into silence, watching our children play.
They were doing a great job of parenting, but they weren't very good at it. I think that's the definition of great parenting: not being very good it. A Zen master once said: a good father is not a good father. Boy, did I know what he meant. Being a good parent, I think, is not about knowing what you're doing, but about recognizing, at all times, that you don't know what you're doing. I watched them both try to walk the line between freedom and boundaries, control and allowance, stern instruction and raw delight, and I nearly laughed out loud—they both reminded me so much of me. For the moment, I was free from that tension myself because the Lego station in that particular library is a very happy place for my son.
Then, for no particular reason, I realized why everyone else in the country was scared of these men and would deny them the right to marry, maybe even deny them the right to adopt these precious little boys. The force of it was so strong that it felt like a bat to my head. And then I wanted to laugh.
Before I tell you my epiphany, let me tell you about my other epiphany, the one that came with adopting my son. The biggest thing I know about life on this planet is that it's possible for bureaucrats to choose your son for you. From the moment I met Duke, I knew that I would die for him, but, more than that, I knew that he was absolutely our son. All the trouble we had with conception, all the heartbreak and blame and I-wanna-die in the middle of the night was worth it for that one insight. If I can love with all my heart a stranger from the other side of the world whom someone else picked for me, what the hell else have I been missing? A year or two before our adoption, I wouldn't have been any more surprised if alien spaceships started showering our major cities with candy corn and Twizzlers.
Watching the connected disconnection between these gay men and their sons was no different from watching myself. Explain this mystery to me, oh gay men, I wanted to say. How do these things happen? I've been where you are, and I really want to know. Please share with me the secret of your miracle.
What I realized was that family was a fiction, that these men—and everyone else I know who has a child—had just dreamed up their families. It wasn't a product of our genes; it was a product of our imaginations. It didn't occur naturally any more than candy corn and Twizzlers. It was artificial in the sense that there was nothing inherent in these two men that would cause you to believe in the possibility of this circle, the way that, say, you might imagine the possibility of my two miscarried children if you looked inside my wife's body for long enough.
And yet, I also realized, biological families are particularly fictitious. My wife dreamed that someday her real father—who was a prince—would come to rescue her. For some reason, I always believed that I must be Jewish—although there's a goddamn map of Tipperary on my face—and I fantasized about bookish men who would one day put the lie to my paternity (my fantasy was harder to manage than my wife's as my father and I are near-duplicates of each other). How many men have I met who don't love their biological sons? How many sons do I know who don't love their biological fathers? The world is too full of them, I think, and love is a transitive verb, which means that it requires an object. There is no love without action. Love without action is something else. A movie, maybe. A Hallmark card.
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Certain conservative Christians hate gay marriage not because they're trying to preserve the sanctity of marriage. Check out the divorce rate among conservative Christians if you want to know the deal on that one. They hate gay marriage because they hate the idea that anyone can pull off this miracle. Anyone. If I gave them half a chance, they would probably hate me for adopting a baby from another country: I have no "divine right" to this child—at least not the way many people construe "divine"—and many in his birth country would argue that I don't have any right at all. What they don't want you to see is the magic of the thing. For lack of a better word, they don't want you to see the "God" in the thing. And, believe me, that's a very different word from "divine."
In many ways, I think it's just the same old swindle. The first guy tells you that the kingdom of heaven is within you, but the second guy tells you what the first guy really meant was that the kingdom of heaven is above you. The moment after you hear the truth, there's always someone who wants to correct you. I teach other people's children for a living, and I want everyone to know that it's possible to love anyone. I have no doubts about this. It's not a theory or a belief. It's certainly not something that needs to be legislated. It's just about the biggest fact of my life.
Sometimes I have this fantasy that my culture will get some real values. I think anyone who raises a child in any manner that doesn't involve coat hangers should be given an award. If we're going to exclude people from legal entitlements or basic civil rights, I say exclude the people who aren't raising children. I got exactly three hours of sleep last night, and that's what I was thinking the third time my son called out to me from the darkness. I am his father because I comforted him; not because we share the same genes and not because of my sexual persuasion. "Father," too, is a transitive verb. And you can bet your ass that my gay friends in the library know exactly what I'm talking about.
Dan Barden grew up in OC and teaches creative writing at Butler University in Indianapolis, where his wife, Elizabeth, owns Big Hat Books, that city's only independent, general-interest bookstore. He is the author ofJohn Wayne: A Novel.