The Soul

The Diva and the President

My big girl is a politics/theater double-major at SUNY Purchase. (I know. Yes, they do go together.) She’s ending her freshman year – but for the last three years she’s been heavily involved in marriage equality work – canvassing, phone-banking, writing, organizing. In that time, she’s seen Prop 8 overturned (and then stayed), and marriage law changed in New York State. This is pretty big stuff for a 19-year-old.

She’s gone to performing arts schools since she was 11, which seem to have a larger proportion of gay boys than other types of schools in New York City. So she’s grown up as these boys – her friends – are grappling not only with the vicissitudes of adolescence, but obvious added complications. She’s passionate that these boys deserve the same rights that she and her boyfriend have. She simply does not see why they should not.

When I was 19, my dad wrote me a letter in which he detailed his work for civil rights. He’d been in Newark in 1968, as a young minister. And he was working with black churches in the area – and some of the people regarded him warily because he was white. (In truth, he wasn’t; he – and I and Diva – was part Seminole and part Blackfoot.) One man pinned him up against the wall in a church basement and threatened to beat him for being an interloper. It was only because my father was eloquent that he was unharmed – he persuaded the man that he was truly on his side, and that having a white minister on his side would actually be an asset rather than a drawback.

When we moved to Southern Delaware in 1971, the Klan was active in nearby towns (and probably in ours, although my father wouldn’t go so far as to point it out to me when I was six). One night my dad came home from a meeting just across the border in Maryland and reported crosses burning. A couple of years after that, we had an Ethiopian refugee involved with our church – Dad took a lot of heat for that. And when my grandfather visited, my father chafed at his attitude towards “colored people” – an attitude that was a form of self-preservation and assimilation for Grandpa, who had grown up in shame because of his own non-white family.

The racial landscape never became entirely smooth as I was growing up (and it’s not smooth now, of course), but the Klan eventually withered in that area. And after a while, Dad had a new civil rights problem on his hands – a number of men in our church realized, after being married for years and having children, that they were gay and could not continue to live as they had been. In the 1970s, this pretty much took off the tops of people’s heads. The kids were teased mercilessly. The men had to leave town. And Dad was with these families night after night after night, listening and counseling and praying and just…being.

My dad would be very proud of his granddaughter. She took to this work as naturally as he did – because there was never any doubt in either of their minds that everyone is equal, that everyone deserves respect. It was never even a question for either of them. Other people were the ones who made it a question, and their passion for setting things right, for answering “yes” to that question, is what changes the world.

Last night I was on Twitter with Diva and she was in tears of joy because of Obama’s statement. Yes, it was a long time coming. Yes, it shouldn’t need to have been said at all. But it was, and it’s good. And she had a hand in it.

One thought on “The Diva and the President

  1. Your father sounds like a courageous man, standing up for his beliefs and for others during that era. It’s wonderful that your daughter is carrying on the tradition. I hadn’t heard about President Obama’s statement, so thanks for bringing it to my attention too.

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